All of us are, or were, beginner backpackers at one time or another. People are not born with experience and skills. You try, you fail, you practice, you try again, you make a mistake, you try again, and so on. It is an ongoing, but wonderful practice that just makes you better and wiser. But there is no harm in taking some advice from those who learned the hard way. To be fair, this list has nothing to do with beginner vs expert. How many times have you heard about "the experienced hiker" that got lost and had to be rescued or recovered? So, if you are a first timer, these tips will come in handy. If you are an experienced backpacker, well, we all need reminders no matter how good we think we are.
Yes, you need stuff when out in the backcountry, but how much stuff do you really need? A heavy backpack will become quite uncomfortable very quickly so make sure you only have the items you need. The usual weight bearing culprits are too much or the wrong clothing and the items you think you just can't live without. Start with the basics - sleeping bag, backpack and shelter. But this is just a start. There are many items you will need to consider or have in your pack to be comfortable and survive in the backcountry - water and something to treat it and carry it in, food, a means to prepare food, first aid, map, emergency device, proper clothing, etc. You can start cutting weight by purchasing lightweight gear. You can buy a 30 F sleeping bag that weighs 1.5 lbs, but backpacking should not be only accessible to those that are gram counters or have a lot of disposable cash to buy ultra lightweight gear. There are many tips and tricks to keeping your pack weight down.
And of course, in the process of trying not to overpack, you could leave behind to much. Try not to convince yourself that you can just sleep in your hiking clothes or can take a 30 F sleeping bag when the lows are expected to be 10 F. Minimalist is good, but not when it gets in the way of comfort, a good night's sleep and safety. And in all honesty, packing is an art and takes a few trips to figure it out. What you left behind on one trip, you will wish you had on another.
Wearing the Wrong Pack or Your Pack Wrong
Aside from your shoes, your pack is your most important piece of gear. Not all packs are the same. They come in all different sizes, shapes, brands, weights and even colors (for the fashionable hiker). You never want to take a pack made to carry only 15 pounds and load the pack with 30 lbs. You also need to be sure that your pack fits your torso and hips properly. Don't wear your 6'5" boyfriends pack if you are 5'4". But even if you have the right pack, you have to be certain it is loaded properly and strapped on your person just right. Click here for information about how to properly pack your pack.
Not Taking Care of Your Feet
Your feet are the most important piece of equipment when hiking. Be certain you are protecting them. Wear the proper shoes for where you are hiking (climate, terrain, distance). You don't want to wear waterproof hiking shoes in 90+ degree heat. Click here for tips about selecting the proper footwear. Make sure you are also wearing the proper socks with your shoes (merino wool is recommended) and take care of any "hot spots" before a blister appears. This means whipping out the first aid kit or moleskin before that spot that is rubbing turns into a blister. You can prevent blisters as well with products like Glide and Super Salve.
Bringing Untested Gear
You just bought the latest and greatest MSR stove and you can't wait to try it. Putting it together for the first time should not be when you are 10 miles from the trailhead. Make sure you know how to use your gear and have everything that goes with it. Or, if you are using a piece of gear you haven't used in a while, double check its functionality. You don't want to be caught in the middle of nowhere with a malfunctioning water filter or a headlamp with dead or no batteries.
Depending on the GPS
GPS's fail, batteries die, devices misread distance, direct you the wrong way and may just not work in some places - i.e. narrow canyons. Know how to read a compass and a topographical map and have it with you.
Overestimating Hiking Ability/Speed
Not all terrain is treated the same. Being able to hike 10 miles on flat surfaces is not the same as 10 miles in a place like Grand Canyon or Yosemite National Park. A 3000 ft elevation change will have a huge impact on how fast you hike and how well your body is going to handle the ups and downs. Aside from terrain, also be sure you are considering climate. Hiking when it's 75 F is a lot different than when it's 100 F.
Not Being Flexible
You are in the backcountry, ANYTHING can happen and when it does, you need to be ready and flexible. Weather can change and force you to change your itinerary, move slower or start later. Someone in your group could be slower than you expected or an injury could force you to change course. Whatever the case may be, go with the flow and don't force your perfect trip to happen. In other words, sit back and enjoy the ride.
'Kind of' Planning
You need to plan and looking at a couple websites or blogs is not enough. Research your route, weather, climate, tide charts, snow levels, terrain, elevation charts and whatever else you can find about the route you are choosing. There is a wealth of information out there. Figure out ways to put a hike in perspective. For example, hiking Grand Canyon from bottom to top sounds like a great idea and not that hard. But how difficult does walking up almost four Empire State Buildings sound?
Not Staying Together
There is safety in numbers. Just because you are a speed demon and the thought of going slow makes you break out in hives, does not mean you should leave your group in the dust. So break out the calamine lotion and stay with your group. Slow hikers and fast hikers can get lost - turn at the wrom\ng junction or get injured. Set up designated meeting times and locations, meet at trail junctions, or stay in site of each other. Besides, you are out hiking with your friends and family - enjoy your distraction-free time together!
Feeding the Wildlife
Aside from intentionally feeding wildlife, which is such a no no, we can be guilty of feeding the wildlife unintentionally as well. Be certain you store your food properly. If you are in bear country, a bear canister will come in handy, especially if you are in a place like Yosemite National Park as they are required. Hanging food also works. When in a place like Grand Canyon where there are no bear, a metal mesh sack called a "rat sack" will come in handy as well. Bottom line, properly storing your food will protect your viddles, your gear from getting destroyed and save the lives of wildlife.
Leaving a Trace
When you are out hiking in the wilderness, you probably expect to not see toilet paper draped in a tree or names carved in a tree. That means you shouldn't do the same. There are numerous Leave No Trace principles we practice in the wilderness to ensure no one that comes after us ever knew we were there. It is low impact hiking and camping to leave the area the same way we found it. For information, visit the Leave No Trace website.
Taking Other People's Advice
Yes, I get the contradiction but just because something worked for one person does not mean it will work for you. This goes for gear brands, trail difficulty, packing light, staying warm or whatever else you will encounter when preparing for and physically being in the great outdoors. You know you best, so while you should do your research, don't just read one article or one review and think "I got this!" You never have it until you do it so take what you read with a grain of salt, double check the source for where you are getting the information (i.e., is it coming from some guy who hiked a trail in Grand Canyon once or from a source like ours with people who have been guiding people in the backcountry for over 10 years. Or the woman that has hiked every 14'er in Colorado and thinks a jaunt up Half Dome is a piece of cake while you hike 10 miles on trails with little to no elevation change. And even then, we still don't know how YOU will be on a trail or what pack works for you. Research the information provided by the area in which you are traveling (NPS, NFS, BLM, etc), read reviews, look at videos, pictures, trail descriptions, and anything else you can get your hands on.
Want backpacking and hiking tips? Visit our blog! We also offer guided backpacking trips in Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Olympic and other amazing locations. So if you don't want to take your lumps all by yourself, come along with us!