Oh, the world of backpacking. If getting into the backcountry has made its way onto your radar recently and you are ready to take the leap into your first backpacking trip, but are nervous about being a beginner, this is the post for you. This summer, I completed my very first backpacking trip in Grand Teton National Park. With my last-minute trekking pole purchase, my sleeping bag tucked snugly in my bag, and my tent ready to be pitched in the alpine, I headed out onto what is now one of my most cherished memories.
What most don’t tell you is that backpacking and the outdoors IS for everyone. You don’t need to have all the bells and whistles to have a successful trip. All you need is the gear that you can afford and are comfortable using, along with a positive mindset that will help propel you forward on your journey.
While I did do plenty of research for the trail, water filters, gear reviews, and best backpacking gear, there were definitely mistakes I made that were inevitable. So, chances are, you definitely don’t want to make these beginner backpacking mistakes either, and I don’t blame you! In this post, I am going to share the mistakes I made while in the backcountry for the first time so that you don’t make them either and make your first backpacking trip one for THE BOOKS. Grab yo’ coffee and let’s get into it!
This post may contain affiliate links for the products I mentioned, but as always, all opinions are my own. I make a small commission, at no extra cost to you, when you make a purchase or booking through these links. This helps to support this space and keep me blogging, which I am so extremely thankful for.
I am adding to my hiking/backpacking resource library at the moment. In the meantime, check out these incredible hiking locations!
1 | Not taking enough breaks
When we had an early morning and around nine miles until we got to camp, the ONLY thing that I wanted to do was to get to camp. For some reason, I was afraid that we wouldn’t find it, arrive too late, or just take way too long to get there. I was so focused on the arrival that I neglected to give my body proper breaks. I ended up exhausting myself just a few hours before camp and I seriously regretted it. I think when you first get into backpacking, you think that you need to be the fastest hiker to prove something, which leads to thinking that getting a nice break in means you’ll be behind everyone else or that you’ll be judged or viewed as “unfit” for the adventure. At least that’s how it went down in my brain.
Take advantage of those break times. Especially if you’re planning on sticking around for the views. Definitely peel those socks off and feel the breeze between your toes!
2 | Trying to hike too many miles in one day
Again with the ‘first-time’ reference, trying to hike too far in one day will seriously put a damper on your backpacking trip as a beginner. A good number to play with when you’re starting out is around seven to eight miles a day. I would apply this rule of thumb no matter if your trip is three, four, five, or even six days long. Once you get out there and get a feel for what you and your 20-30 pound backpack can take on, you can adjust for your next trip accordingly.
On my friend and I’s first day out on the Teton Crest Trail, we tried to take on around nine miles, which isn’t awful, but with the amount of elevation gain, it came to be a super long day for the both of us. So much so that I cried when we got to camp! This also happened to be the day that I tried to Usain Bolt those nine miles without proper fuel and breaks so that made it even worse. Keep your mileage at around 7-8 every day, take it slow, fuel yourself, and you won’t feel so overwhelmed.
3 | Ignoring minor first aid + blisters
A proper first aid kit, although one of the last things you pack into your backpack, should be the first thing you think about for your backpacking checklist. While a lot of the time, you’ll be able to make it through the trail safely, maybe not needing anything serious from your medical kit. However, accidents happen anytime, anywhere and it’s best to have something light will all the fixin’s so that you’re never without proper care. Something serious might not occur, but something minor that happens often is blisters, which you should definitely take care of properly when you feel or spot them. Don’t take this one with a grain of salt! I have currently lost a toenail, going on #2 as we speak! My two big toes are the color of grapes!
The first aid kit I have is the Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight & Watertight 0.7 Series. I had to cover first aid for two people when I was choosing mine, so that is why mine is good for 1-2 people over the course of 1-4 days, but they come in 0.3, 0.5, and even 0.9 sizes depending on your adventure. I would have probably gotten the 0.5 size if I was by myself. I put my trust in this kit because it comes with care for everything from bug bites, repairs, extractions, sanitation, and blister care. Not only that, but the bag is waterproof and weighs under half a pound if I were to estimate it. You can even order refills when you run out of certain things!
I waited way a few days too long to apply moleskin to my blisters, so don’t make this same mistake!
4 | Ignoring elevation gain while planning daily hiking mileage
One of my best tips for planning your first backpacking trip is to take into account how much elevation gain there is total for the trail and for each day you plan on hiking. Elevation gain is basically how much incline you can expect to be walking up that day. It works the same for downhill slopes. The more elevation gain over a shorter distance, the steeper the climb. Whereas the same elevation gain over more miles is going to be lesser of a climb. You can find these numbers by a quick Google search, generally. On my first backpacking trip on the Teton Crest Trail, my total mileage was fifty miles over six days with a 10,000-mile elevation gain over that time. This was definitely riding the line of my comfort zone, but I found it to be the perfect balance of incline and flat once I completed it!
On average, hikers move at around two miles per hour or 1000 feet of vertical elevation gain per hour. The more elevation gain you have on a hike, the more difficult it is going to be. If you’re just starting out, research your trail and ensure that the mileage and gain are beginner-friendly, or just a little easier. Backpacking is definitely one of those things you don’t want to fully send it on your first time, especially since it’s so easy to overestimate our abilities without knowing how the additional weight influences how fast we move.
5 | Leaving minor comforts off the trail
When it comes to backpacking, you definitely want to make your bag as light as your gear and budget allow, but sometimes there are small things that you want to bring along that give your hiking trip an extra oomph. While I did leave deodorant at home, the one thing I wish I would have packed was a brush. It seems rather frivolous to want a brush in the woods, but I have really really fine hair and that mixed with hiking and hats is a recipe for disaster. For example, I can brush my hair, walk out of the house, and it would already be a rat’s nest. So when I mixed no brushing with dirt, oil, and sweat. Yikes, guys. YIKES. There is only so much progress your fingers can make… I wish I had a brush, or even a small comb, every single day I was on the trail.
Alternatively, there might be a piece of gear that is your minor comfort. Some people prioritize lightweight backpacking chairs. Others want a nice backpacking pillow, and some want to bring along a solid story to read or a journal. A minor comfort looks different for everyone, so don’t let rules and judgment keep you from enjoying yourself.
6 | Not (really) knowing how to read a topographic map
With all the new age technology like iPhones and high-tech GPS systems, a lot of hikers nowadays will ditch learning how to read a proper map. Why did I not learn how? It’s simple. I was lazy. And to that I say, it was a very dumb mistake. While technology can get us by in most cases, after all, we aren’t printing off MapQuest directions anymore, relying solely on its support is rather than pairing it with old-school skills is a recipe for disaster. Phones break. GPS systems die. Then what? You may find yourself up shit creek without a paddle in this case.
However, as my digital resources worked fine on the trail, what I found to be lacking was that I didn’t know what to expect for the next day’s mileage and elevation gain. There I was staring at contour lines and elevation markers without a SINGLE CLUE as to what they meant or how they read. The benefit of being able to read a topographic map is that you can plan your days more efficiently, know what to expect for the next day, and plan your breaks on trail accordingly. I graced over topo basics, but I never fully learned how to read one. If you don’t know what a topographic (topo) map is or how to read one, I highly recommend learning the basics and practicing what you learned in your area. It will help you be better prepared for your trip and in case of an emergency.
7 | Testing (all) new food on the trail
Chances are, the food you take on your first backpacking trip is going to be a whole lot different than the food you normally eat at home, with some exceptions being snacks. With that being said, most of your top picks are going to be based solely on other recommendations. This isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, it’s good to look up the best food to bring with you as a beginner backpacker, however, with how wishy-washy some dehydrated meals, snacks, and other trail food can be, you definitely want to do a few test runs before you go. You don’t have to test everything, but choose a few and make sure you vibe with it.
Once you’re up and actually hiking, the LAST thing you want to have on hand is a crusty meal that you have to force yourself to eat. Elevation gain and higher mileage can really bring down your appetite, so lack of hunger mixed with low energy and a dingy meal can put a damper on the best parts of the day. Even though there were still some meals and snacks that were flops, the meals I enjoyed the most on my trip was the Good-To-Go Marinara, Good-To-Go Oatmeal, Outdoor Herbivore Hummus, and bagged black beans like these and these. If I had more flexibility with my bear can and food volume, I would have definitely brought along some Amy’s Soups *drools*. This one and this one are my favorites!
8 | Not drinking enough water
Chug, chug, chug should be your motto on the trail. I drink a ton of water at home as it is, around four liters a day, but when you’re sweating your tushie off ALL DAY, you gotta be drinking like it’s your job. A good way to keep track of how hydrated you are is by taking notes during your pee breaks and your energy levels as well. This will give you a good indicator as to where you’re at hydration wise. Also, staying hydrated is one of the best ways to help prevent altitude sickness, if you happen to be hiking over 8,000 feet as well!
I was able to stay hydrated easily by taking along my Sawyer Squeeze Filtration System and my Osprey Hydration Bladder. Together, I always had around four liters of water on me at any given time. This does add quite a bit of weight, but it motivates you to drink up so your pack will get lighter and lighter! Fill up as much as possible and try to get at least 4-5 liters down every day!
9 | Arriving on the trail with a sprinter’s mindset
This beginner mistake I made goes hand in hand with the second mistake I made on my first backpacking trip. So not only had I planned my mileage/elevation gain pairing a little wonky, but I wanted to get to camp as quickly as I could. I arrived with this narrative that I needed to be fast, take few breaks, and get to camp earlier in the day so that I wouldn’t be looked down upon. Another thing that contributed to my sense of urgency was my anxiety fueling my fear that I wouldn’t get to camp, but that subsided as the days came and went. But even then, I was still called a “flat-lander” and lapped by many people as I huffed and puffed my way up over mountain passes.
What you’re pursuing isn’t a cakewalk, and it’s definitely not a sprint. That’s for sure. You don’t need to be fast to be recognized. You don’t even need to be recognized at all. Take your breaks. Walk slow. Enjoy the view. “Hike your own hike”. Eventually, I took pride in being slow and getting lapped again, and again… and AGAIN. Walk as slow or as fast as you’re comfortable with, and don’t be embarrassed if there are lots of people that pass you. After all, you get to enjoy the views for a whole lot longer than they do *wink*.
10 | Not leaving a safety plan with someone you trust.
I sound like a broken record with this one. Not just with the outdoors and backpacking, but with travel safety in general. No matter how experienced you are, bad things can happen at any time. In addition to traveling with an emergency GPS, you should be leaving your hiking plans with someone you trust. This way they know where you’re going, what days you’ll be in certain places, and when they can expect to hear from you when you complete the trail. In the event that you are lost, this is a lot like “leaving breadcrumbs” for your location, making you easier to locate.
What should you include in your trip safety plan? Leave the names of everyone in your hiking group, with little anecdotes about their appearance and other details: age, height, allergies, nationality (if international), passport number (if international). After that, you should include a rough overview of your trip details: trail name, location, start date, exit date, how you’ll let them know when you finish the trail, local authorities to contact, other notes, and a date to contact authorities if they still haven’t heard from you. Additionally, you should consider leaving even more details: what days your hiking, start/end locations for each day (hiking from X to Y), planned campsites/areas photos of your gear, all emergency contacts for the group, and how you’re getting to the trail.
Having a safety plan this detailed set in place will help you and your loved ones feel more confident on the trail. There is comfort in knowing that others know where you are and that they can contact someone in the event you don’t finish the trail. I sort of left a plan. By sort of, I mean the Grand Teton Backcountry Rangers had a small itinerary of what my friend and I were doing and where we would be camping, but I didn’t leave anything more than that with anyone else. This is dumb! Don’t do what I did!
11 | Not training for high mileage/elevation gain days
Hiking in excess of eight miles a day with an extra thirty pounds on your back is by no means a cakewalk. Honestly, I think I put my body into a little bit of shock after I was done with my hike. Training for a backpacking trip can do wonders to prepare your joints, strength, and overall stamina for your journey. One of the bigger challenges I faced was that I lived at about 200′ above sea level while I was hiking at around 8,000+ consistently. There really isn’t a way to train for this since I am Texas, but I was able to walk around with my bag to get a feel for the weight. I dabbled with “training” but nothing serious that made a difference while I was on the trail.
Backpacking Mistakes I (Almost) Made
12 | Bringing too many sweet > salty snacks
This was a mistake that I made last year hiking in Utah and one that I could not possibly make again. When you’re sweating for prolonged periods of time, the amount of sodium and electrolytes you lose in your sweat must be replaced with a salty snack or meal. This isn’t to say you can’t bring sweet foods, but just don’t bring ALL sweet foods or snacks. If you only bring the sweets, when it’s time to grub out, getting down all the sugar might pose a little bit of a challenge.
13 | Not researching proper Leave No Trace Etiquette
As more and more people begin exploring the outdoors, more trash and other “memorabilia” often get left behind, tainting the experience for everyone else. Leave No Trace, in a nutshell, means that there shouldn’t be a ‘trace‘ that you were in nature after you have left. This is most widely known as “leaving nature how you found it”, or the infamous, “take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints”.
There are seven principles to Leave No Trace: Plan Ahead & Prepare, Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces, Dispose of Waste Properly, Leave What You Find, Minimize Campfire Impacts, Respect Wildlife, and Be Considerate of Other Visitors.
You can dive deeper into the specifics here. A lot of these mistakes can be avoided simply by doing proper research for your trip. When you’re in the trip planning process, a lot of these subjects will get brought up along the way. Make sure to review these principles and research further details for your area when you are planning your backpacking trip(s).
14 | Not researching local wildlife safety precautions
Depending on where you are in the United States, or the rest of the world, you NEED to know what types of critters you can expect to see on your hike, and what measures you should take in the event you see one. For most of North America, you need to watch out for moose, black bears, grizzly bears, mountain lions, marmots (chewing up gear not necessarily personal safety), and wolves. Encounters with some of these animals can be fatal, but if you know the precautions and proper safety tips, you could end up saving your life… twice.
But this isn’t to say that you need to instill a deep fear for these animals before you head out. I was scared shitless of encountering a grizzly bear on my first backpacking trip in Wyoming and I didn’t even see one! In fact, the odds of being killed by one a grizzly is around one in TWO million. Leave the worry at home and instead, bring along the knowledge to maintain your confidence in the outdoors.
You need to know the basics in case you encounter one, or to avoid an encounter altogether.
15 | Ignoring proper food storage
One of the times I value most while backpacking is whipping out a nice snack, airing my feet out, and enjoying the view. Now, imagine waking up and all your food has already been ravaged through by your forest friends, leaving you nothing but scraps… This is what will happen when you don’t store your food properly. In addition to that, leaving food out is basically the equivalent of putting a massive neon sign above your tent that says, “all you can eat”. Okay maybe not LITERALLY, but you’ll definitely get some curious animals stopping by your tent.
Just like animal safety precautions, there are certain precautions you need to take to protect your grub depending on where you are in the world. For example, if you’re hiking in grizzly country, you must have a bear-proof food container for not only your food but all the smelly items you’re carrying with you, like chapstick and sunscreen. Some areas are more lenient than others, but you should definitely research properly so that you protect yourself, your food, and the animals.
16 | Forgetting you have chapstick/snack wrappers in your pockets and going to bed
I think this is a beginner backpacking mistake everyone makes, but be sure to check your pockets in your jacket and backpack for loose wrappers and chapstick before stowing away your food and gear. Even these small scents, while not appealing to us, still have the ability to attract animals to your campsite. It only takes a minute to do a quick once over and you’ll be thankful if you did happen to find something!
What’s your favorite piece of backpacking gear? Share with me in the comments below!
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