How To Avoid A Beginner Backpacker Shit Show
We go backpacking. A lot. And these days we pretty much have it down to a science. It was not always this way, though. We made some amateur backpacking mistakes when we first started out, fumbling around in the proverbial dark for some sort of light switch to show us the correct path (pun intended) to take when it came to gear, technique, safety, and comfort.
Through some hard earned wisdom, and help from others who came before us, we have compiled a "start here" backpacking guide: How To Avoid a Beginner Backpacking Shit Show. Yes, it is a shit show… at least starting out. You will make at least one of these mistakes, most likely several, but we are here to help you reduce as many blunders as possible. Simply put... read this article, do your homework, prepare appropriately, be smart and respectful. If it seems like a bad idea, it probably is.
Pack Too Much Shit
This is probably the most common mistake beginner backpackers will make. Chances are even after reading this, you will still overpack on your first trek. It may take a couple rounds of backpacking before you begin to understand the excess baggage you are carrying, what you actually need and use, and where you can slim down. Check out our backpacking checklist as a guide to help you pack the necessities.
There is so much involved in choosing a backpacking pack. A heavy and uncomfortable pack can cause chaffing, bruising, back strain and more. We encourage you to get properly fitted for a pack at a professional outfitter and try it out on shorter hikes. If it does not work out, most places will exchange it out for another one. You also need to know proper "pack etiquette" - that is, how it sits on your body. We follow a 70/30 rule: 70% of the pack weight is on the hips, and 30% of the weight is on the shoulders. Transferring weight to give your hips and shoulders a break intermittently is a learned skill, and a useful one.
Check out this article by REI on how to fit yourself for a pack and how to adjust along the trail.
Along similar lines, you want to be mindful of the amount of water you are carrying. For example, if you fill up a 3-liter Camelbak or bladder, this will add almost 5-10 pounds to your pack. That may not seem like much, but it adds up! If you are hiking in the desert or arid areas, like Utah, this totally makes sense - and is necessary. However, if you are hiking near freshwater sources, you can filter clean water throughout your hike to avoid carrying that extra weight.
Nothing can ruin a great hike like having blisters rubbing you raw. Here is how you can avoid these foot malfunctions...
1) Hiking Boots
These will be the single most important investment you make as a backpacker. Do not just waltz into an outfitter and leave with the first pair you try on. Be sure to try on several pairs, and do not hesitate to "road test" them around the parking lot, or even at home for a week. Most outfitters have a 100% satisfaction guarantee, and will continue exchanging shoes and boots until you feel you have found the right ones. If you purchase your boots through an outdoor company like REI, they have a faux mountain to hike down when trying on your boots. You want to ensure your toes are not sliding to the tip of the boots as you go downhill. Also opt for waterproof boots, so any trekking through puddles or streams will keep your feet dry.
Be sure to break in your boots well before a big backpacking trip.
Hiking socks are typically made of wool, polyester or other synthetic materials. These fabrics regulate temperature, insulate, and wick moisture away from your feet. You will want to find socks that work for you based on sock height and thickness (or temperature rating). Be sure they fit snug to avoid rubbing, but not tight to cause discomfort. The best place to buy these are an outdoor store like REI or Cabela's - look for brands like SmartWool or Darn Tough.
Your everyday cotton socks will rub and cause abrasions. Trust us when we say - do not wear cotton socks when hiking.
Be sure your nails are trim prior to leaving for your hike - but not too trim where the sensitive area under your nails is exposed. Too short or too long can cause quite a bit of pain, especially when walking downhill.
Sam and a friend hiked The Narrows, top down, in Zion National Park a couple of years ago. His friend had not trimmed his toenails before they left, and took his shoes off midway to relieve some pain for a moment, only to find a small massacre had occurred in the toes of his canyon shoes. Not good.
Every backpacker should know basic navigation and have the essentials - a paper map and a compass. Practice these backpacking skills on high traffic trails. When you arrive at a junction, review your map and be sure you are heading in the right direction. Should you get lost along the way, you will be able to retrace your footsteps.
There are enough books on wilderness navigation to fill the Library of Congress, as well as outdoor classes. Study up - it will always stand you in good stead. Do not explore the backcountry until you feel confident in these skills.
There are four major shelter malfunctions that can happen to backpacking noobs:
1) You get what you pay for when purchasing the shelter essentials. This includes a tent or hammock, sleeping pad, sleeping bag and pillow. You don't have to get the most expensive backpacking equipment, but do your research and make sure there are plenty of reviews - great ones.
For example: Sam carries two pillows - if he chooses to not use one he will sit on it at dinner time for added comfort. Sam is skinny and has a bony butt. We both typically carry a Therm-A-Rest pillow and stuff it in the hood of our sleeping bags, I also add my jacket behind my head.
2) If you have two people going on a backpacking trip... do not bring a 5 person tent. In fact, never bring a 5 person tent. Keep it lightweight. If you have more than 2 people traveling, someone else will need to carry an additional lightweight shelter.
3) When setting up your shelter, look for proper water drainage. If mother nature decides to precipitate, you want to avoid water pooling around the tent. Be sure to camp at least 200 feet from water sources, or on high ground should it flood.
4) We understand how much it sucks to cook outside when it is freezing cold... but how much worse would it be if your tent caught fire? One accidental move and your camp stove can topple over sending your tent and everything in it up in flames. Not to mention, camp stoves run on fuel - propane blend - and you really do not want to fill up your tent with carbon monoxide.
If you really need to, cook within the pocket of space between your tent and the outer edge of the rain fly. This is NOT IN the tent - rather just outside of it and on the ground. You also want to make sure it is well ventilated.
Leave No Trace
Leave no trace (or LNT) is a common backpacking phrase you will hear. This means one should hardly be able to tell human activity was there. Tent sites, campfires, anything. And I mean, any human activity. This skill is not cute by any means, but who are we trying to impress? So let's get straight to the point...
When defecating along the trails, we are not only leaving an impact on wildlife and plants, but on other backpackers coming through. I understand packing out your shit and used toilet paper is not the ideal scenario, and hopefully one day there will be composting bins along the trails. Many BLM or wilderness offices will have bags for you to use, or you can also try wag bags.
Never bring gear into the wild that you have not first tested at home. Something is always bound to go wrong.
I have a camp stove in my pack, but since Sam and I travel together, I never had to use it... until I did. Before leaving on a solo trip, I practiced using this stove multiple times before I was confident I could use it on my own. And guess what? Had I not tested it, I would have also forgotten the stainless steel cup to heat the water, which would have rendered the stove useless.
Many first-time backpackers head into the trails with the "it won't happen to me" mindset. Let me tell ya, critters and animals can smell what you brought from a long ways away. Any scented items and food should be stored away from your campsite, because it can, and will, attract unwanted attention to your site. This is why many places like Colorado will require you carry a bear can if heading out into the wild. Not only have one, but store it 75 yards away from your campsite.
We recommend packing an extra gallon ziplock bag to put any trash inside, and to only bring unscented toiletries. If you are able, hoist your pack into the trees and off the ground with paracord.
We have seen many backpackers along the trails hauling enough food to feed a small army for two weeks. Cans, boxes of macaroni and Hamburger Helper, packages of steak... the works. Here is the truth: the human body can survive three weeks without food. You do not need your entire kitchen for a 3-day pack. The backpacking industry has filled this gap and created freeze dried foods, nutrition bars, gels and more that is appropriate for this type of activity.
Sam and I enjoy eating Mountain House. These freeze dried meals are surprisingly delicious, high in protein and can be stuffed into the tiniest of spaces in your pack. They are very quick to make and clean up just as easily.
Weather... one of the most unpredictable things in the world. Weather can turn at the drop of a hat, especially in the mountains. Always bring a light rain jacket and rain cover for your pack. Depending on your destination, evenings and early mornings can be chilly, so pack a jacket, hat, and gloves suitable for your backpacking trip. Pack for where you are going - the deserts in Utah can be blistering hot while the mountains of Utah can still have snow on the peaks. Be mindful of what you will need.
And always, always, always check the weather prior to leaving. If it says there is a chance of rain... pack like it is 100% going to rain.
Never arrive at a destination with the assumption that your whole plan is going to be kosher - because travel requires a lot of planning and adjusting. Be sure you have the right maps, camping and wilderness permits, and have checked current conditions (weather, bugs, etc.), trail closures or fire bans, etc.. If you are traveling during peak-season, be sure to rent a car and your campsites as early as possible.