5 Mistakes Beginner Backpackers Make
As with all things, we make mistakes. I’ve made them and you’ve made them, so I figured I’d just toss together a quick list of 5 mistakes beginner backpackers make. How do know they happen? Because I’ve personally made them myself.
For the record, there are more than 5 mistakes you can make when you’re just getting started, but I’ve done my best to choose the ones that I think are the most impactful.
5 Mistakes Beginner Backpackers Make
Purchasing too big of a backpack
Not eating food or drinking enough fluids
Moving too fast
The wrong size shoes
Improperly packing your pack
BONUS: Not having a proper navigational tools or an idea of what’s ahead
So that’s the list, but let’s break each of these down so you know what we’re talking about here and now to avoid these issues going forward. Let’s get to it!
Taking too big of a backpack
I know it’s hard to do this because for some reason we think we need the biggest backpack possible. In reality, you’re just making your life harder than it has to be. Backpacking is about bringing the essentials and nothing more. The less you bring the more fun you’re going to have. Less isn’t more, it’s less! Less weight, less gear to purchase, less pain on the knees and back, and less hassle getting ready. The only thing that falls into the category of “more” is having MORE fun, hiking MORE miles, and eventually being able to backpack MORE.
You simply don’t need all that space in a backpack if you’re packing it the right way and being intentional about the things you’re putting into it. If you’re using anything larger than a 60L pack, you REALLY better have a damn good reason for doing so. The more space you allow yourself to have, the more stuff you’ll put in it just because it’s there. It’s like packing for a vacation; bring a bigger suit case and you’ll fill it with all the things you don’t need. If on the other hand, you bring ONLY a carryon, you’ll be more intentional about what goes in and ultimately have less to deal with.
Backpacking is all about being efficient. Being efficient with your gear, your body, and your mind. Once those things are all running on exactly what they need to get the job done, you’ll be cruising down the trail in no time having a great weekend in the mountains.
Do yourself a favor, and get the smallest pack you can. A 45-60L pack is great for trips up to an entire week.
Not Eating enough food or drinking enough fluids
I screwed this up sooooo bad one time. Like really bad! We hiked 15 miles throughout the day and for some reason, I wasn’t eating very much. I made the mistake of listening to my body for the cue to eat, when in reality, my body didn’t really know what was happening until it was too late. It was too busy running off of the reserves I had and by the time I got to camp, I was shaking, felt awful, and had to force feed myself dinner.
I pitched my tent, crawled in, and didn’t want to believe the world existed at that point. My hiking partner came to check on me and made me some tea to help get my appetite going and if it weren’t for him, I don’t know how that night would have gone.
You NEED to eat and pound fluids regardless of the terrain, distance, and outside temps. We don’t need to go into diets here because that’s something you just need to figure out for yourself based on your particular needs, but you DO need to eat throughout the day and on a regular schedule.
Unless you’ve been hiking all summer long or your body is cued in on when you’re starting a physical activity, your appetite just won’t be there. In fact, it’s more likely that your body won’t be hungry on the trail until it’s too late. DO NOT LISTEN TO YOUR BODY when it comes to how much food it needs. Do your research beforehand, talk to your doctor if you must, and feed your body all along the way. You get to control when you eat, not it.
A good rule of thumb to start with is the following:
1 Liter of water and 500 calories for every 5 miles of hiking
Fuel up with food and water BEFORE the 5 miles so that your body has enough energy to burn. If you make it 5 miles, then great. If not, take a break either every hour or every 2 hours to refuel. DO NOT go longer than 2 hours without feeding your body regardless of the amount of miles you’ve covered. Take my word for it…you don’t want to feel the suck of an energy bonk. If for ANY reason at all you start feeling hungry or thirsty, eat and drink. The two hour window is a rule of thumb for when your body isn’t responding to your hike so if it tells you it needs food before 2 hours is up, then eat!
Being hungry, low on sugar, low on fluids, and low on energy is a recipe for disaster. You can avoid an awful time if you simply eat and drink. Bring electrolytes to replenish what you’ve spent and don’t skimp on fluid intake either. If you have to carry more water, so be it. Dehydration is hard to come back from so be smart.
Moving Too Fast
It’s not a race. Regardless of what your buddy might say to you or what your friends might think of you, don’t fall into the trap of moving faster than your body wants you to. Whether it’s a 2 mile hike or a 200 mile hike, you want to move at your NATURAL pace, not the pace of someone else. If they’re hounding you about moving faster, tell them to either go on ahead without you so you can have some peace, or tell them to shut it.
We all have our own walking pace and natural stride. It does nothing but damage your body if you’re moving faster than you should be. Moving too quickly can cause your feet to impact differently which means risking blisters and unnecessary impacts to joints. You don’t want to be racing up the trail. Rather, you want to glide over the terrain like a forest ninja in training.
Beginner backpackers make this mistake a lot and it’s really unfortunate. I myself have made it time after time and have finally figured out that my pace is just my pace. You can like it or not…it just is what it is. If mine is too fast for my partner, I slow down, but if I’m the one who’s too slow, then I just tell them to go on up the trail without me. I’ve come to enjoy my solo hikes anyhow.
Backpacking is supposed to be fun. Moving too fast makes it not fun, and that’s just silly. Do more of the fun stuff.
The wrong sized shoes
This one is pretty easy and simple so it’ll be quick. Again, I’ve made this mistake too many times. I’d buy a pair of hiking shoes that fit perfectly, get out on the trail and find myself with blisters. As it turns out, I was not buying the right sized shoe. I should have been moving up a size or at least a half size to account for swelling of the feet and to avoid jamming my toes to the front of my shoe when going down hill.
After getting smart, I sized up (which I hate doing) and it fixed the issue. It’s not a cure for blisters, but it sure does help.
Getting the right sized shoe is key. Your feet will swell as you hike so you need to account for that.
Improperly packing your pack
Boy, I could probably go on a long winded rant about this one. If I had a dollar for the amount of times I saw a pack moving down the trail that was cringeworthy…I’d…well…you know the saying.
Packing your pack is a major component of having a good time out there. If you do it wrong, it’s going to hurt and that’s not going to be fun. We’re here to have fun right? Accepting that “backpacking is painful” is just plain nonsense. Backpacking is NOT painful, but it can be if you’re doing it wrong.
Here’s the deal; if your backpack hurts you at all whatsoever…you’ve either packed it wrong or it doesn’t fit you right (those are big ones). Both can be fixed by either adjusting your suspension or repacking your gear.
Here are the basics:
When packing your pack you need to keep the weight evenly distributed. If one side of your pack is heavier than the other (not an exact science so don’t go think about it too much) you’ll find the pack will be digging into various places of your body like the shoulders or hips. The more evenly you can pack your pack, the better the suspension can do it’s job. Left to right (on the horizontal axis), you need to ensure it’s not wonky and leaning one way or another.
One way you can check this (again, not exact science) is by setting your pack down on a flat surface to see if it falls one way or another. If it continually falls to the left then you know it’s might be loaded wrong. If it’s leaning backwards and falling over quickly (this will be obvious), then you know you might have some heavy objects loaded to far out from your body’s center of gravity.
Try to store the heaviest objects close to your body and near the middle/upper part of your back. Lighter objects like a sleeping bag go to the bottom, then heavier objects, then lighter objects again at the top. If you pack heavy items at the bottom, the pack will dig into your hips and sag on you. On the other hand, if you pack your heavy food bag at the very top, you’ll be top heavy and have a hard time balancing the load. You want heavy objects nearest your body and close to the middle of the bag.
There’s a method to the madness and remember, if you pack hurts or is uncomfortable, you either have it packed wrong, wearing it wrong, or you have an improperly sized pack for your torso length and body type.
Not having navigational tools any idea of what’s ahead
Look, it’s 2019 when I’m writing this and GPS’s have been around for years. Not only that, but your smart phone has a GPS in it too so there’s literally no reason you should be getting lost out there. At a minimum you should be carrying a map, but at this point in human history, we have tools, cheap tools, at out disposal to ensure we know where we’re going and how to get back home.
In the time that I began to take backpacking seriously, a lot of platforms have been launched. Off the top of my head you have GAIA GPS (Affiliate Link), OnX Hunt, Guthooks, Garmin’s mapping software, and All Trails. These are either smart phone compatible, or standalone on your computer. It’s best if you choose a platform that does both. I’m sure if you google search for more you’d find a lot out there.
Bottom line, you need to know where you’re going, how far it is, what the conditions are, and how to get home safely. I personally use a number of different resources to ensure the area I’m headed has what I need to stay safe. I’ll check it out on the internet, one of these apps, and then use Google Earth to scout it out even more. The more information you have in your brain about the route, the less you have to worry about.
Last summer, there was an individual who went missing in my local area for 6 days. He was from out of town and had no idea how to get back to the trail head. Folks…this is not okay! If you don’t want to use technology or if you don’t have a phone that uses GPS, then buy a map online, your local outdoor store, or from the forest service. HAVE SOMETHING! There are so many people out there that take this into consideration last and I honestly don’t know why.
Here’s another example for you. In 2016 I was hunting along a popular trail system. This was early September so the days were long and as the sun was going down, out popped a couple of guys hiking this trail at dusk. They had been walking all day and headed back to the trail head they came from, but didn’t have anything on but t shirts and summer looking clothing layers.
When they showed up, we had a fire going and they asked if they could warm themselves up…. These guys had been walking for hours and weren’t warm?! We obviously let them warm up and after a minute or two they asked how far away from the trail head they were. They guessed a mile or two when in reality it was more like 7 over some of the worst terrain the trail had to offer.
I was floored. I told them they had to get going now so they wouldn’t get caught on the bad stuff in the dark. As they left our camp, I just shook my head. I don’t ever see myself starting a trail and not knowing how far it is to where I’m going or wondering how long it’ll take to get there. That’s just unacceptable.
The average hiking pace is between 2-3 MPH. Use that math to calculate how long it’ll take to get to where you’re going. Be smart, and have a map on you of SOME kind.
I could probably go on for another 5 mistakes, but for now, this will do. Each of these 5 mistakes can be avoided and will go towards making your outing into the wild more enjoyable.
Be safe out there and make good decisions!
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