5 Things I Learned In My First 300 Miles of Backpacking
You Live and You Learn
No matter the amount of researching, and planning a newbie backpacker does before a trip, nothing will prepare them better than being on trail.
Like any new hobby there are certain elements that are unknown without trial and error, and very importantly an open mindset to learn from mistakes.
Backpacking, I believe, isn’t just a hobby. Once you’ve been out for awhile, it feels like a new way of life.
Some people know extensively about different gear and already have a developed understanding of their specific needs or manners of hiking before they set out on their big journeys.
You don’t have to know the best ultralight fleece or puffy, you don’t have to be ultralight at all. It takes time to figure out what works best for you.
Here are the things I figured out in my first 300 miles of backpacking:
1. Know your gear, know it well
On day one of the PCT I was at a creek with a group of other hikers taking a break. I started to filter water but realized it was going all out the sides of the bladder. My filter didn’t have the o ring that prevents it from leaking as you squeeze it into your bottle. How did I miss that? I looked over all of my gear a million times before I left. Once I got to camp I asked around if anyone had an extra one, another hiker kindly gave me an extra.
Lesson learned: look over every piece of gear thoroughly, bring backups of small items like o rings or bottle caps in case you lose them.
2. There will always be some kind of pain
Feet hurt all day, blisters feel like huge bruises, thighs chaff nonstop, sunburns so hot I can’t sleep at night. Achilles pain traded for shin splints leaving me with a constant limp even without a pack on. My eyes burn every time I put my contacts in and there are chunks of scabs in my scalp from not showering.
There’s always something hurting. It’s important to realize when it’s serious like shin splints that’ll require you to take multiple zeros or something that’s unavoidable like mega dandruff. Sometimes you’ll have excruciating pain somewhere for a couple days that will go away like it never even happened.
Lesson learned: suck it up, toughen up, hike through the pain but listen to your body.
3. You’re alone, but not really
With the amount of traffic on the PCT you’re never really alone especially in the first couple hundred miles. Though it also depends on the trail. You can be hiking alone for miles but you’re bound to run into someone.
I started feeling homesick about two weeks in. I wanted so badly to share this life with my family.
Somedays I get mad I’m experiencing loneliness, injuries, or extreme fatigue but it’s all part of the journey.
I was at dinner in Idyllwild with a couple other hikers explaining some of the struggles I’ve had so far. One of them said to me that whatever I’m feeling or experiencing everyone else out here is probably dealing with the same things or worse. I’m never really alone. It can feel as though I’m the only person going through a tough day when everyone else looks so put together on the outside. Sorta put together anyway, we’re all filthy. But they’re definitely dealing with battles of their own.
Lesson learned: the hiker community is huge, we all look out for one another. The struggle is normal, talk to other hikers.
4. There are pros and cons hiking in a group
Hiking in a group is great. Sharing experiences with others is important to me, so eating dinner at camp, summiting a mountain, exploring towns is fun and can be more memorable with other hikers.
Not everyone has the same schedule. I wake up very early and like to be on trail as soon as possible. Some hikers take their sweet time getting out of their sleeping bags and make coffee in the morning.
I like to take my long break around noon by a water source if possible and some hikers don’t pre-plan breaks at all.
Some days I can’t do as many miles or vise versa. There will be towns I don’t want to go into but other hikers will.
One morning I woke up and started hiking fully expecting the others to be behind me and to see them on trail that day. I didn’t see them for a couple days.
Lesson learned: Hike your own hike. Don’t try to keep up with anyone, find your hiking style and stick to it. The people you like to hike with, you’ll see them again. Maybe.
5. Trail legs are real
When you first start out you’re like a newborn deer finding your footing. You’re not sure how your legs work yet. It takes time for your body to adjust to walking 15+ miles a day so small injuries in the first couple hundred miles are normal. My body was in a constant state of shock. I had no appetite for the first 200 miles, I got sick the day after I pushed myself 21 miles through 90 degree heat and am still dealing with a gnarly cough. That was just being mindless of my body’s limitations. Your joints, muscles, even your mind need to be broken into trail life and that takes a lot of time. I’ve gained more muscle in my legs, and am finally starting to feel like I can crank out 20 miles everyday. But that doesn’t mean I should. I might feel good, but my body is still adjusting. I’m currently taking two zero days due to shin splints.
Lesson learned: be mindful. Don’t push yourself harder than you need to. Trail legs come with time, work, and patience.
In my first 300 miles I’ve learned a lot more about the world of backpacking and myself than I expected. I look forward to many more miles of this journey and lessons to be learned.
Special shoutouts to Juice, Tbone, Hotlips, Water Taxi, Crumbs, and Smoothie. Thank you to all the kind hikers who have helped me along the way.
Happy trails <3
Other quick etiquette/tips new hikers may not know:
- yield to the hiker going uphill
- earbuds in rattlesnake territory is risky
- an alarm in a packed camp is not polite
- don’t leave batteries charging overnight (I got a cord and wall plug stolen)
- leave your pack outside of stores or restaurants unless given permission to bring them in
- tip trail angels
- think before getting into that rusty truck for a hitch into town
- know where everything is (I hiked back .5 to look for sunglasses I didn’t actually lose)
- look before you sit (I got a cactus stuck in my finger, thankfully not my ass)
- don’t overpack food, you’ll regret the weight
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