We All Start Somewhere: Beginner Backpacking Stories from Experienced Backpackers
When asked about their first overnight trip, your average outdoor enthusiast may describe a perfect weekend spent ogling dramatic landscapes and sleeping under starry skies. But what they may be leaving out is the gear they forgot and mistakes they made while learning the ropes.
While it’s true that a hiker’s first few backpacking trips can be filled with magic and dreamy nostalgia, they are often full of missteps that are sometimes too embarrassing to fully admit. From forgotten gear to “bathroom” malfunctions, there are a lot of mistakes—and consequently a lot of learning—that happen during those first few trips.
It’s important not to be discouraged by your beginner backpacking mistakes. Even the best hikers and most prestigious Triple Crowners had to start somewhere, and there is no shame in the errors you made while learning the ins and outs of the backpacking world. As proof, we’ve compiled some of the funniest “first backpacking trip” stories from thru-hikers and long-distance hikers to show that even the most experienced backpackers on the trail sometimes get off to a rocky start.
Beginner Backpacking Stories
Pants and Toilet Paper: Same Thing.
The first time I ever went backpacking was a 38-mile loop in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I had no idea what type of clothes to wear, so I wore a pair of black Dickies work pants. It rained four out of the five days we were out hiking. They became so hot and wet that I had to cut them into shorts. I also forgot toilet paper on this trip and had to use the cutoff pieces of pants as toilet paper. It was awful…
-Wankles, Appalachian Trail / Long Trail /Foothills Trail
The Fastest Way To Dry Wet Socks
I have many examples of stupid things I’ve done on trail, but one of the dumbest also happens to one of the first. It was just a few days into my Appalachian Trail thru-hike. A small group decided to go in on one of the cabins at Mountain Crossings to find some relief from a thunderstorm that was rolling through the area that day. The socks that I had been hiking in got soaked and didn’t get a chance to properly dry before we were getting back on trail. As everyone was packing up, I had the brilliant idea to toss my still damp Merino wool socks into the oven at a very low temperature. Within minutes, one of my fellow hikers said, “Do you guys smell smoke?” I ran over and opened the stove, and sure enough, I had burnt a hole the size of a tennis ball in one of my three pairs of socks. I am very dumb.
– Badger, Appalachian Trail / Pacific Crest / Colorado Trail
Lions, and Tigers, and Owls. Oh My!
On my very first backpacking trip, my boyfriend and I chose to camp at The Haystacks along the Loyalsock Trail in PA. We hiked into the woods with a five-pound tent, backpacks that we previously used for school, and no knowledge of how to hang a bear bag. As we set up camp for the night, and the sun was starting to sink, we watched the forest come to life. Suddenly, an owl hooted right above our site. It scared me so much that I broke down camp as fast as I could and ran five uphill miles on a pitch dark trail all the way back to the car.
– Spot, 900 miles of the Appalachian Trail
Life Lesson: Pee Outside Your Tent
Day one of my AT thru-hike and I arrived to the first shelter dazed and exhausted. It was later than expected so I threw up my tent, only ate a protein bar, and tried to settle in for the long night. Then, I had to pee. It was cold and already dark so I fumbled in my tent for a gallon ziplock bag. I thought this was genius. So knees aching, I tried to kneel and squat and whatever to make this happen. Successful! Feeling pretty proud, I put the bag aside and try to rest. Not 30 minutes later, I have to go again. I pull out the bag, kneel, and spill the urine all over everything. I try to mop it up with my socks and move to the side of my tent. Needless to say, I froze and shivered half naked, curled up with just my sleeping bag liner until morning. Lesson? Get out of the tent.
– Flame, Appalachian Trail 2018
A Mountain Pass Means “to Bypass the Mountains,” Right?
I grew up in the Northeast, and we didn’t have a term for “mountain passes.” To me, a pass meant skipping something… passing by it. After college, I went to work in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, and invited by dad and brother out for a visit for which I carefully(?) planned a two-day backpacking trip to help them take in the splendor of the Wild West. I had never been out on an overnight before, my pack weighed almost 40 pounds, and my dad and brother were not acclimated to the elevation. There was a massive mountain in our region called Electric Peak, and I chose a route nearby that included “Electric Pass,” thinking it meant “bypassing Electric Peak.” What it actually meant was climbing thousands of feet over the pass (Mountain pass definition: A navigable route through a mountain range or over a ridge) with lovely views of the peak as we sweated and climbed and cursed my lack of knowledge and research. I definitely cried. We made it, but it was a hell of a surprise as we started to climb… and climb… and climb. The lesson? Learn the local terminology. Read a map. Ask people who know more than you. Lighten your pack.
-Honey Badger, Appalachian Trail
From Kmart to Trailhead
“First time camping was with a group of three other friends in the Sawtooths in Idaho. Brand new tent in the box from Kmart and turns out there was no rainfly. Also, the box said four-person tent that turned out to be a two-person. Super miserable experience cooped up in the tent in the rain so I went and slept under the branches and stayed mostly dry but cold.
–Ryan Unger, SHR (x2) AT, PCT, JMT
You Won’t Get Too Far with Flat Tires
This story is about backpacking’s little-known cousin, bikepacking. This is exactly what you would think—backpacking, just on a bike. I was attempting to complete the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, which loosely follows the CDT, and had been biking for about five days. With about 60 miles of pristine Canadian wilderness to get through until the next town, my friend, Tree, and I had seen only one or two other people, but plenty of signs of wolves and bears in the area. After cresting the top of a mountain located somewhere in the Canadian Rockies, we have three to four miles of downhill but very rocky riding until we reach the next campsite, and it had just started to rain so we wanted to hurry. However, due to not being the most experienced mountain biker, I hit a relatively large rock, causing my back tire to pop. We decided to walk our bikes the remaining three miles until the campsite, since waiting to change the tire until after the storm passed sounded way more tolerable than undoing my cargo in the mud. We made it to the campsite before dark and set up for bed, ready to tackle the problem in the morning. I woke up early to change the tire and I quickly realized I had purchased the wrong sized tubes for my bike. At this point, I let out a very emphatic “Well, f—.” Here I am, in the remote Canadian wilderness, 60 miles from the next town, gear soaked through, with no way out. Just as we were ready to bite the bullet and walk our bikes through 60 miles of the Rocky Mountains, an elderly man by the name of Dave came through the campsite in a huge pickup truck he was just driving around for fun. We flagged him down and, through the stereotype of Canadian kindness, he was more than happy to let us hitchhike with him the 60 miles to our next town. He had saved us from what could have been a serious error, and got us to our next town ahead of schedule. I was able to survive that seemingly hopeless situation and continue on for around 2,000 miles afterward. If it wasn’t for a big stroke of lucky, my mistake may have cost us the entire trip and left us stranded in the Canadian wilderness. Shout-out to Dave, wherever you are, for saving us.
– Camel, Appalachian Trail (sections) / Great Divide Mountain Bike Route
Chickens Like to Hike Too
Last year on my first solo hike along the AT from Harpers Ferry to the Ed Garvey Shelter, I heard what I swore was a bear tramping along in the woods. I clacked my trekking poles together, shouted out, “Hey bear!” and hoped that the sound would deter the animal. After crossing the road to continue along the trail, the sound I had heard startled me from the left and I squinted to get a closer look at the “bear.” It took me less than two seconds to realize that the “bear” I had been hearing was, in fact, a chicken. Yes, you read that right. A chicken. On the Appalachian Trail. Just having a grand old time.
– Mighty Mouse, Appalachian Trail / Dolly Suds
When a Rattlesnake Joins You on Your Pee Break
Was having trouble finding a place to pee in one of the steeper, rocky sections of Connecticut. By the time I spotted a notch in the brush to get some privacy, things were critical. I was pulling down my shorts, already peeing, and simultaneously jumping into the small clearing. Just as I crouch down, I raise my gaze to find a timber rattlesnake poised to strike at me. We share a mutual “oh shit” moment before I throw my pack into its strike, and make yet another peeing, pantsless leap back into the trail.
– Beamer, Appalachian Trail
The Saga of the Waterproof Match
I was out in early October on my first solo backpacking trip, which was a thru-hike of the 58-mile Loyalsock Trail in northern PA. For dinner I had a nice Backpacker’s Pantry ready to go and, at the time, my foolproof method for starting my stove was waterproof matches. This should be a warning for all who purchase said matches: these things are good at what they do, which is to stay burning. So now, the stove is lit, but I can’t seem to blow the match completely out. I tried blowing harder and shaking the match in every direction possible in a mad panic, but it was still burning. The match suddenly burned me and I accidentally dropped it on the dry forest floor! As your average outdoor lover, the only thought running through my head at this point is “you cannot be the one to start a forest fire” lest this situation go from embarrassing to absolutely mortifying. But the initial small smoke plume was quickly stomped out. Good, but now it was a challenge to locate this match from hell. Long story short, I went all small rodent, and dug through leaves and dirt for the better part of an hour to no avail, finally just staring at the ground making sure nothing started to burn. Thank God, nothing did happen and I wasn’t responsible for any major habitat loss. What an accomplishment!
– Mildew, Loyalsock Trail 2017 / Chuck Keiper Trail 2018
Immodium and Toilet Paper: Not the Same Thing
For the first couple days of my thru, I didn’t pack enough toilet paper and ended up running out. I took a few antidiarrheals, hoping it would help hold me off until I was able to get some TP resupply. That first poop was brutal!
– Moose, Appalachian Trail
Hiking in Jeans Is not for the Faint of Heart
For my very first backpacking trip—solo in the mountains of VA, circa 1998—I brought nylon track pants in addition to my jeans, since I read that jeans weren’t good to wear backpacking. When I put my pack on in the parking lot I thought, “Oh my God, this is way too heavy.” Inexplicably, I chose to put the three-ounce track pants back in the car and continue with just jeans. On my third river crossing I slipped and went in. That night, I built a fire to try to dry my socks and jeans, which resulted in still-damp socks and jeans that now had important pieces burnt off. I froze that night, even though I had wrapped my (full-length) towel around my legs inside my Walmart sleeping bag. I hiked out the next day. It’s not easy to hike in socks that only go to the ball of your foot, but I did it. And let’s just say that one of my legs got a little tanner than the other. Thankfully, I didn’t encounter anyone else on the way out. Almost 50 trips later I’m much the wiser, but still make plenty of mistakes.
You’re Never too Experienced to Read Trailmarkers
When I first started hiking solo but had a handful of hikes under my belt I decided to climb a mountain called Chocorua in New Hampshire. I set out without a map, minimal gear, and in cotton clothing. After reaching the summit, I was pretty tired and started heading down. I was so sure of myself that when I got to the first trail junction I didn’t even glance at the trail sign before taking a right down the trail. About 30-40 minutes into my descent I started to really question whether I had taken the correct trail down the mountain. I was tired and the idea of having to reclimb about 1,000 feet up to the trail junction was not an option I was willing to toy with. Finally, I asked someone what trail I was on and it was confirmed that I was going down the exact opposite side of the mountain from my car. Luckily those same people said they were more than happy to give me a ride back to my car (about a 30-minute drive). That experience taught me that you shouldn’t think too highly of yourself even if you think you’re experienced because we all make mistakes. It also taught me to check trail signs and make sure you’re on the right trail!
– Socked In
When Common Sense Decides to Sleep Outside Your Tent
Like many people, I carried a tent during my thru-hike attempt. However, I soon developed the habit of staying in the shelters along the trail. It was just easier: no tent set up or tear down, no need to worry about rain, etc., so I only used my tent a handful of times. One of the reasons I didn’t sleep well in my tent was that I was constantly worried about my down sleeping bag being up against the tent walls and getting wet. Even though I cocooned myself in the bag in the middle of the fairly spacious one-person tent, I would move around in the night and the bag would be damp the next morning. So one night I decided to stay at a campsite in the middle of nowhere in Vermont. I had gotten a late start because of town chores, so I ended up between shelters with the campsite as one of my only options. After setting up my tent on the platform, I made dinner and settled in for the night, with the usual qualms about my sleeping bag. Which is when I got the brilliant idea. If I used the garbage bag that I packed my sleeping bag in, I could bag the bottom of my sleeping bag so that it wouldn’t matter if it got up against the tent walls. Plastic shield around the down bag. Genius, right? Why hadn’t I thought of this before? Probably because it was stupid. I woke up the next morning and the bottom of my down bag was drenched. The only thing the trash bag had done was to trap condensation around my sleeping bag, letting it soak in to all that nice, fluffy, critical down. After finding my camp towel, I managed to squeeze a good amount of water out of the sleeping bag. I packed it up, along with my injured pride, and walked off the embarrassment. Moral of the story? Sometimes common sense is hard after a long day of hiking.
– Vulture, Appalachian Trail
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