Backpacking can be blissful. Gorgeous views, strong coordinated muscles, connection with nature, a lovely sense of internal peace and contentment…
When it’s going well.
But when it’s going poorly, backpacking can be a special kind of hell. Blisters, wet clothing on a cold day, a heavy backpack, high-altitude queasiness… It’s enough to make anyone hang up their hiking shoes for good.
Fortunately, most of us learn from our mistakes, or (thanks to the internet) the mistakes of others. While we can’t control everything in the wild outdoors (would we even want to anyway?), we can certainly learn how to set ourselves up for a higher chance of success. It really does get easier with practice.
In this post I’ll share with you some of the most unpleasant mistakes I’ve personally made while backpacking. Some were in my early days, and others were embarrassingly recent.
By no means is this a complete list of things that can go wrong; part of the fun is learning at least some lessons the hard way. But if you’re just getting into backpacking, knowing about these potential backpacking mistakes will help you start off on the right foot, so to speak.
Packing Too Many Fears
When leaving behind the comforts of home and heading out into the wilderness with only what’s on your back, it’s easy – and very natural – to feel a bit afraid. This often leads beginners to overpack so absurdly that their biggest hiking fear becomes the pain in their shoulders from an impossibly heavy pack.
Afraid of being cold? You’ll pack way too many layers. Afraid of being dirty? You’ll pack soap you don’t actually need (really!). Afraid of being uncomfortable? Throw in that camp chair and pillow. Afraid of being hungry? Pack double the food you actually need. Afraid of bears, or the dark? Pack that huge camping knife.
While not bad instincts, with experience you can learn to recognize productive versus unproductive fear. Channel the unproductive fear into useful tasks like researching your route and learning navigation skills. Then stick to a basic and practical packing list, take the leap on some shorter trips, and learn what you actually need.
And remember, knowledge and experience are very lightweight!
Letting Warm Layers or Sleeping Bag Get Wet
It was the first and only time I’ve ever cried because I was just so darn cold.
A week into my John Muir Trail thru-hike, which was actually my first long backpacking trip ever, it started to sprinkle rain. No big deal, if you’re smarter than me. Just throw on your rain gear and keep walking.
But it was one of those deceptively light rains that makes you think you should wait just a little bit longer before bothering with the rain gear. And then, before you know it, it’s pouring and you’re drenched to the skin. Eventually I did put on my rain gear, but it was a long day in damp clothes.
And then, that night, the temperature dropped. I woke up to freezing temperatures and formerly damp layers now stiff with frozen rain. I tried to get dressed and break camp, but it ended in uncontrollable shivers and tears of frustration. Back in my sleeping bag, I refused to move until direct sunlight bathed my campsite.
The lesson: DRY warm clothes and sleeping gear are literally your lifeline on the trail. Even during the summer, overnight lows in the mountains can be life-threateningly cold without a dry sleeping bag and warm layers.
As a backpacker, one of your most critical jobs is to keep this gear dry no matter what. Specifically:
- Put on rain gear BEFORE your clothes get wet. Put on your pack cover BEFORE your pack gets wet.
- Double-protect critical layers and sleeping bag within your pack using a dry sack or plastic bag, even if you’re also using a waterproof pack cover. Sometimes pack covers leak, so it’s good to have a backup.
- Try to keep a set of warm layers (down jacket, long underwear) safe and dry in your pack for when you arrive at camp. Better to use body heat as warmth while hiking, if you can, and keep your warm layers safe and dry from rain and sweat for when you stop moving and your body temperature drops.
Wearing Uncomfortable or Untested Footwear
Fortunately I’ve had this one nailed for awhile; I always hike in trail running shoes and haven’t had blisters for years while wearing them.
But last year I did an alpine climbing trip that required mountaineering boots, and I learned what many hikers go through when struggling with poorly fitting footwear. The trip was a special treat for me, not something I do often, and I bought the boots specifically to make it possible.
Not wanting to spend hours clomping around my local trails in heavy boots, I did only one short test hike with them before declaring them good to go.
Not surprisingly, up near the top of some epic California 14ers with two days still to go, the boots started rubbing. I ended the epic four day trip feeling strong and courageous, but with a lot of missing skin on my toes.
Thankfully, fear of heights mostly distracted me from the pain while scrambling the class 4 ridge lines, but the hike down the approach trail was painful.
Hiking footwear is a big topic, but these essential tips should be on your mind:
- Make sure footwear fits you properly and is not too small, even once your feet swell from a long day of hiking (go up at least a size from your normal shoes if in doubt).
- Always test new footwear before committing to a multi-day hike in it. This doesn’t mean a quick two mile stroll. Ideally, test new boots or shoes by hiking the same daily mileage you would on a longer trip, while carrying a load, and on a similar type of terrain.
- If boots tend to rub you the wrong way (literally), I highly recommend giving trail running shoes a try. Their lighter weight, breathable construction, and flexibility can solve blister problems, and the notion that we all need stiff boots for “support” has turned out to be largely a myth.
If you’re interested but not sure where to start, I highly recommend the Altra Lone Peak. It’s easily the most popular trail running shoe among hikers, and I’ve been hiking and running in it for many years.
Running Out of Water
Sitting at the summit of Rose Peak, ten miles into our twenty mile hike, I felt my hydration bladder run dry. I looked uneasily at my husband, who sheepishly admitted he had already run out of water a few miles back. It was about 90 degrees out, and we had ten miles of completely exposed hiking to get back to the trailhead.
There was only one thing to do. We calmly stood up and walked, with measured effort and extremely dry mouths, 10 miles back to the trailhead. I swear the drinking fountain in the parking lot dispensed the nectar of the gods; water never tasted so good.
Why on earth had we begun a twenty mile hike on a hot summer day with less than two liters of water each? Because we were really stupid! It was the early days of overly ambitious routes, unfamiliar gear, and trial and error. That was one error we never wanted to make again.
Plan your water carefully, and be very conservative in hot weather. How much water you’ll need varies greatly with the weather, terrain, and your personal body. My husband, for example, always drinks more than I do when we hike together.
A good rule of thumb until you’ve learned your own needs: half a liter per hour in moderate climates. But in hot and/or dry climates, or high altitude, you may need up to a liter per hour (and you should be supplementing electrolytes too – here’s an easy electrolyte supplement I use often). If filtering water from natural sources and unsure of your next source location, be extra conservative.
If I were to repeat that thirsty 20 mile hike now, I would start with at least four liters of water each, not the measly two that we brought. It was an uncomfortable but very effective lesson in water planning.
Not Having an Emergency Plan
It’s not something you think about when things are going well. But maybe you know that feeling in the pit of your stomach when you unexpectedly run out of water, lose the trail, get stuck hiking after dark, or roll your ankle a little bit in a remote area… And you realize suddenly that NO ONE knows where you are.
I’ve been thinking about this more as my solo adventures escalate in scale, both on foot and on my bicycle. But even when hiking with others, things can go wrong and another person is not an automatic safety net.
The golden rule is to tell someone where you’re going, what route you’re taking, and roughly when you expect to be back. Be sure to specifically tell them when to start worrying, and what action they should take, otherwise you’re creating a lot of stress for them.
And, be sure to actually tell them when you’re back! Their first action should be to attempt to contact you before contacting authorities, just in case you’re so absorbed with that post-hike beer and hamburger that you forgot to tell them you’ve finished safely.
For those hiking in less traveled areas, and especially solo hikers, I recommend carrying a satellite beacon. The classic SPOT tracker is always a good choice, allowing you to send an emergency SOS message in case of a life-threatening emergency.
Lately I’ve been using the Garmin InReach Mini, which also offers emergency rescue messages similar to SPOT. But I prefer it because it also lets me send free-form text messages to any number I want, so I can check the weather, inquire about that forest fire I see in the distance, and keep my family up to date if plans change.
When using a tracker, it’s best to keep it on your body instead of your pack. Ever drop your pack at the trail, scamper off into the woods to use the bathroom, and forget which way you came from?
Choosing a Wet or Cold Campsite
You might think that higher elevations are generally colder, and lower elevations are generally warmer. This is true on average, but it doesn’t take into account the shape of the land nearby. Because cool air sinks and warm air rises, those lower valleys and canyons can often be the coldest places around in the night and early morning hours.
For warmer temperatures (and less condensation), look for campsites that aren’t super high (if hiking in the mountains) but also aren’t the lowest spot around either. Partway up a big climb can be a great choice.
If it’s raining, or might rain overnight, you always want to consider the surface you camp on and the shape of the land around it. Avoid places that obviously collect water, like depressions in the ground and empty stream beds. Rocky surfaces often drain better than dirt when the water is really coming down.
Underestimating the Terrain
Have you ever carefully planned daily mileages for a backpacking trip, only to find yourself struggling with an impossibly tight schedule? We all know to factor in uphill versus downhill when estimating hiking pace, but other factors can make a big difference too. A few examples:
- Downhills are usually faster, but only up to a point. Super steep and rocky slopes can be as slow going down as going up.
- Lingering snowpack can slow you to a crawl, sapping extra energy with every step and making it difficult to follow the trail.
- Rocky, slippery, muddy, or sandy terrain can slow your pace dramatically, even on flat ground.
- High altitude makes everything more work and can cut your pace in half over those high passes.
The lesson here is to research your route to understand the trail conditions as well as possible. If you’ll be hiking in an unfamiliar type of terrain – high alpine trail when you usually hike in the forest, or desert when you usually hike in mountains – this is especially important.
Try to keep daily mileage plans reasonable, especially on unfamiliar or challenging terrain. If you want to make ambitious plans, go for it, but put extra effort into considering backup plans if your body can’t keep up. This might mean packing an extra day of food, researching alternative camping locations, carrying extra water, or having a shortcut or bailout route in mind.
Not Building A Strong Body
If your knees and shoulders have never bothered you while backpacking, nice work! I’m a little jealous, I have to admit.
When I first started backpacking (and also trail running), my enthusiasm was stronger than my body. Specifically, I had weak and lazy glutes and core muscles from too many years of sitting at a desk for most of my waking hours.
This led to all sorts of imbalances as my body attempted to make up for what was missing. You would think hiking more would make you better at hiking, but it doesn’t always work this way. Hiking more just made my biomechanical bad habits worse, which translated to pain and a series of lingering overuse injuries. Eventually I discovered the benefits of strength training, but by then a lot of bad habits had been formed, and I’m still working through some of them.
Please, if you love hiking, don’t make the same mistake I did! Learn to care for your knees both on and off the trail, and devote some energy to home strength workouts, even if it’s not as fun as being outside. Trust me, being outside is a lot more enjoyable when you don’t have to worry about damaging your body and dealing with pain.
Botching a Bear Hang, Or Other Food Storage Mistakes
After a week of grueling 25 mile days on the Tahoe Rim Trail, my husband and I hung our food in a scraggly tree to keep it safe from bears. In the morning, the rope snagged and we couldn’t get it down! If you’ve ever done a long hike on lightweight food rations, you can understand our horror.
There’s a happy ending though: we tied a tiny pocket knife to the end of a long skinny tree trunk and slowly, carefully, patiently, hacked the sucker down out of the tree by cutting the snagged rope. The breakfast protein bar that followed might have been the best meal of my life.
While this incident does illustrate the importance of proper food storage, the most common issue is usually the opposite: instead of food being too hard to get at, it’s too easily stolen by animals. Failing to properly store food leads to a) missing food, and b) tragic consequences for animals that learn to enjoy human food.
If traveling in bear country, be sure to follow the regulations about bear canisters or hanging food, and learn to do a proper bear hang if you’re not bringing a canister. It’s harder than it seems, but you’ll get it with practice. An Ursack is a great in-between option, where it’s allowed, and is my go-to food storage method on most trails.
Leaving a Mess
I have to confess something. When I first started backpacking, I buried my toilet paper!
There, I said it. I didn’t know any better! Eventually I found out that this is bad (it can take a long time to decompose, and be dug up by animals in the meantime), so I started packing it out. I also raised my outdoor bathroom game so that I no longer use as much TP, and I make sure to always pack out what I do use.
This is just one of the ways well-meaning hikers accidentally leave beautiful places a little worse than we found them. Especially when lots of people use a trail, this can really add up. As part of protecting the outdoor places we love spending time in, educate yourself about Leave No Trace principles.
This means things like packing out TP, burying human waste, not using soap (even biodegradable) to wash in water sources, and packing out all trash (including food waste).
More Backpacking Resources
If you can manage to avoid most of the backpacking mistakes on this list, you’ll be well ahead of most beginner backpackers!
To continue building your backpacking skills, check out the main Hiking and Backpacking Resources page, as well as these popular guides:
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