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Backpacking 101: 10 Blunders to Avoid on Your First Backpacking Trip

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I get quite a few questions from readers asking how they can begin backpacking so I've decided to put together a "Backpacking 101" series where I will share posts that will make the overwhelming process of getting into backpacking just a bit more manageable. A couple weeks ago I shared all of the gear I use backpacking and this week I'm going to share all of the mistakes that are easy for beginning backpackers to make so you can hopefully avoid them! 


1. Not taking a class...

Alex and I never took any classes before we started backpacking. We had experience hiking and a desire to spend a night out in the backcountry so we decided to just try it out over a Labor Day in Colorado a few years ago. We had done a little online research prior to our trip but no one ever sat us down and said "this is what you should do and this is how you should do it". I wish we had because we would have likely not made as many errors as we did on our first few trips, but we learned fast. REI offers many introductory classes and the best part is that many of their classes are free for members! Use this link to see if there are any classes near you. Other options for classes are the American Alpine Institute, The Mountaineers, Outward Bound (a little more expensive), or NOLS (also expensive but they offer month to semester long courses that can also translate into school credits)!

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2. Bringing too many clothes...
Each time I go backpacking I assess what I brought and compare it to what I actually used. I've discovered that clothing is one of the areas where I can really cut back. On my first backpacking trip I brought nearly a week's worth of clothing despite it being only an overnight trip. I had read about backpackers getting lost in the wilderness and I guess I thought I should be well-prepared by having a clean set of clothes for each day I was potentially lost (because there aren't other things I would be more worried about than my cleanliness...) These days I bring one set of clothes for hiking (moisture wicking top, pants or shorts, and socks), one pair of underwear for each day I'll be in the backcountry, one set of camp clothes (generally leggings, a wool top, and a second pair of socks), a fleece jacket, a lightweight down jacket, a rain jacket, and a wool hat and lightweight gloves. And that's it. No matter if I'm going to be in the backcountry for two days or ten days.

3. Buying gear that is insufficient for the conditions...

It may be tempting to try to find the cheapest gear possible before your first trip but there are a few areas you should never try to cut corners: "The Big 3", which are your pack, sleeping bag, and shelter. Before my first backpacking trip I bought an $80 sleeping bag that was rated at 40 degrees despite the fact that we were going up into the mountains of Colorado. To this day I'm not sure I've ever had such a cold night of sleep in my life. I was shivering. I was miserable. I actually didn't sleep much at all. The moment I returned from the trip I exchanged the cheap bag for a 15 degree bag that was three times as expensive but I'm still using that bag three years later! I also initially bought a cheap backpack and that was another terrible mistake. You will be hiking for miles with your pack fully loaded, you better make sure it fits properly and is comfortable or you may never want to backpack again. I hiked for a year with that ill-fitting pack before exchanging it for a better option and I still regret putting my past self through those agonizing miles!

4. Not bringing a map and compass...

These days GPS technology is so ubiquitous and reliable that it can be easy to become complacent and leave the paper maps at home. But GPS devices can die, maps don't. You do not want to end up lost in the backcountry with no means of navigation. Maps are extremely light so don't leave them behind!

5. Overestimating the distance you can hike in a day...

This mistake is especially easy to make when you are first transitioning from day hikes into backpacking trips. It's easy to assume you can backpack at a similar pace you day hike but a fully loaded pack completely changes the game. It's demoralizing to look at your Garmin and realize that you are still miles from camp when the sun is already beginning to set. Alex and I made this mistake once and were forced to hike two hours by headlamp after we had already been hiking for an entire day. One of the main reasons I backpack is to decompress. It's nice to roll into camp in the mid-afternoon and still have a few hours to unwind, relax, enjoy the scenery and read a book. Cramming in too many miles and risking overexertion and injury is not what backpacking should be about (at least in my opinion).

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6. Not drinking enough water...

How much water we drink has such a huge effect on our performance in almost every aspect of our lives but especially in athletic endeavors. It is recommended that we drink two liters per day when we are going about our day to day lives so when you add in the elements, a heavy pack, many miles and an elevation gain you can see how you will need much, much more than two liters. Just how much you need to drink will differ depending on where you are hiking. Are you hiking in the high heat of a desert or at high elevations? Then you should aim to drink a liter of water per hour. When I hike I aim to drink at the very least a gallon (3.8 liters) per day. You can monitor your hydration level by monitoring your urine output. If you notice you aren't urinating as often or your urine is yellow you need to start putting more water into you body asap!

7. Not bringing a first aid kit...

Always, always, always bring a fully stocked first aid kit. Even on day hikes!! I cannot stress enough how important it is to have things like antiseptic wipes, antihistamines, and Neosporin at the ready. REI put together a thorough list of things to include in your first aid kit here, or you can buy prepackaged ones but make sure to regularly check their supplies and keep them well stocked.

8. Not bringing a gear repairs kit...

It's inevitable. Gear breaks. You do not want to be caught in the backcountry with a broken tent pole or a destroyed boot so be prepared and bring gear repair kits for your equipment. Tents and sleeping pads regularly come with their own repair kits but if not make sure to pick one up at a local outdoor retailer. And duct tape! Duct tape can fix most things in a pinch so we always bring some into the backcountry with us.

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9. Not bringing "tentertainment"...

This is more of a "luxury" item but there will be times when you have hours to kill in the backcountry and in those instances something to keep you busy will feel like a necessity. I always bring a paperback book and a deck of cards. You can bring a book, a kindle, cards, whiskey, a journal, whatever you like to use to pass the time!

10. Over packing...

It's almost a rite of passage in the backpacking world to over pack on your first trip. Have you seen the photo of Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed on the cover of "Wild"? Click here if you don't know what I'm talking about. Yeah, don't pack like that. When packing it can feel like everything is necessary but I always recommend to think twice about everything you are putting into your bag. Will it save your life? Will you be miserably uncomfortable without it? Will it be worth carrying that extra weight for miles on end? If the answer to these questions is "no" leave it at home.


Backpacking can be a challenging but wildly rewarding activity. It also has the potential to be life-threatening if you do not take proper precautions and I don't say this to try to scare you away but to try to make you understand how important it is to be prepared for every possible scenario you may encounter in the backcountry.

I hope these tips are helpful in your trip planning process and if you have any more of your own tips please feel free to share them in the comments section below!