So you’ve finally decided to take the plunge on a multi-day backpacking trip. Maybe you’ve been following nature photographers and adventurous dogs on Instagram while dreaming of escaping your desk job. Maybe you’re a regular car camper trying to make the switch to nomadic camping, or maybe you’ve never really camped at all. I have shared your “where do I start?” bewilderment, and I’m here to tell you that with enough preparation, it’s entirely possible for a beginner to pull off a great backpacking trip.
Full disclosure: I’m also a newbie to the backpacking world. When my husband and I began planning a five-day trek through Patagonia, I had plenty of panic attacks during the planning and packing process. I read what seemed like a million blogs, I became a familiar face at REI, and I obsessively unpacked and repacked my bag. Still, I worried that I had brought too little or too much. To my great relief (and surprise), the trek went off without a hitch.
When done correctly, backpacking is an incredibly rewarding experience that often results in getting to see grand swaths of wilderness that is otherwise inaccessible by day hikers or cars. While there's most certainly a learning curve, avoiding these five crucial mistakes will ensure that you have a smooth start to your trip.
Mistake No. 1: Neglecting your feet
This mistake is the cardinal sin of hiking. Failing to guard your feet from blisters can cause enough pain and discomfort to put the brakes on your entire trek. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking a running shoe is going to do the job. Hiking boots are specifically designed for the stresses of walking long distances, and the specifications can vary widely for different intended uses.
If you plan to hike on rocky or rough terrain with a heavy backpack, a stiffer shoe with good ankle stability is necessary to provide the right amount of protection. If your hikes are likely to be rainy or involve stream crossings, you may want to invest in waterproof boots since moisture can also cause blisters. Before you buy, be sure to size up enough to allow for thick socks and natural foot swelling. Once you’ve picked the perfect boot, spend a week wearing them around to break them in.
Mistake No. 2: Carrying too much weight
As an experienced backpacker friend told me, every extra ounce you pack will feel like an extra pound after a few hours of carrying it. Rather than finding out the hard way, use this advice as gospel while you’re planning your gear. Compare the specifications of any items you might be buying, and choose the lightest option.
Consider reducing the amount of water you need to carry if you expect to encounter a good number of streams or rivers on your route. There are plenty of lightweight water sterilization systems available that can quickly eliminate potentially harmful bacteria from drinking water. Opting for freeze-dried meals can also significantly reduce weight, and having a hot meal available after a long day of hiking is an added benefit.
Mistake No. 3: Setting unreasonable mileage goals
If you’re a runner or a day-hiker, you’re most susceptible to this mistake. Take the typical number of miles you’re able to run or walk in one hour, and cut that in halves or thirds. No seriously, you will feel like a sloth. And your pace will be even slower if your route has any elevation to it.
Carrying a heavy pack will fatigue your legs and feet more quickly than usual, and you may find that you want to take breaks every few miles. Slowing down your trek will also allow more time to observe wildlife and shoot better photos. Be sure to take the sunset into consideration too—setting up camp in the dark is no fun.
Mistake No. 4: Not packing for the forecast
No one can enjoy their vacation if they’re cold and/or wet. Even worse, it can prove nearly impossible to regain your comfort level if your backup clothes or sleeping bag are also wet. The best way to avoid this situation altogether is to monitor the forecast closely before your trip and plan accordingly. Even if there’s a very small chance of rain, it’s always wise to carry a lightweight, highly packable rain jacket and use pack liners to protect the contents of your backpack from moisture—just in case.
If chilly temperatures are in the forecast, layers will allow you to regulate your body temperature most effectively. Just be sure not to wear cotton as your base layer—if you sweat, it will hold the moisture against your skin and potentially cause you to get chills or chafe.
Mistake No. 5: Not having an emergency plan
Even the best laid plans sometimes go awry, and if you’re a worry-wart like me, imagining terrible scenarios comes easily. At the most basic level, make sure someone responsible has your full itinerary and route so that they know when to expect you back. Keep in mind that most of the best backpacking destinations are remote and rarely have phone service. I know that I just finished telling you not to bring too much gear, but a small emergency kit is worth the extra weight. What you put in it will depend on the challenges of your destination, but some examples are matches and tinder, a space blanket, band-aids, compass, pocket knife, duct tape, anti-inflammatory medicine, and an extra stash of calorie-dense snacks.