Backpacking is a sport that as much requires knowledge as skill. That being the case, I find beginners often repeating the same mistakes as those who came before them. It’s almost a rite of passage, a ceremony of sorts. Thankfully, I’m here to help skip that phase of your career. Here are the 5 most common mistakes that new backpackers make, and how to fix them, in no particular order.
Bringing too much
It’s almost comical, some of the things beginners bring on the trail. I’ve witness in amazement as 2 lb propane tanks were pulled from the channels of hell itself deep from within backpacks of tired and withered bodies as they collapsed at their destination. I’ve gawked at cast iron dutch ovens, full length axes, multiple rolls of toilet paper, entire boxes of cereal, 32 oz cartons of almond milk, t-bone steaks, hang guns with boxes of ammo, and even spare tents being unpacked in desperate attempts at being prepared for anything. This, in itself, is understandable. No one wants to not have something they need when they need it. But, at the same time, carrying all this useless junk is itself leaving behind something very important, minimalism. It’s that simple fact that it’s logistically illogical to be carrying that much weight on the trail. Landing at camp after carrying a 45 pound pack is not rewarding, it’s exhausting. With backpacking, less is certainly more. Leave everything mentioned above at home, you won’t need it. Instead, consult this list of essentials for backpacking. Trust me, it’s everything you will need and nothing you won’t. I say this after many, many years of backpacking and realizing for myself how ridiculous my original pack list was.
Bringing too little
Here we go, talking in circles. I know I just said less is more, but sometimes less is simply not enough and that comes up more often than it should. Primarily, people don’t bring enough food and water on their trips. 2 bottles of Dasani will not get you through a day, much less an entire weekend of heaving sacks up mountains, even in cold conditions. If you’re not filling up with water along the way, you should be carrying no less than 3 or 4 liters of water for a single overnight trip, and you should be drinking it. Water in your pack isn’t doing you any good, it’s only making your backpack heavier. It needs to be in your system to benefit you, so drink up. Always carry a water filter or way of purifying water at a source too, as you never know when a bottle may burst or another hiker in need may show up confused and dehydrated. And food; So many people under appreciate the quality of a calorie on the trail. Backpacking is a great way to lose weight, but not by cutting the calories. You’re going to likely burn thousands of additional calories per day while on the trail and cutting that short can be dangerous. I always pack an extra meal for every day that I’ll be on the trail (4 per day) and a generous amount of snacks to work through between meals and for before I go to bed. A handful of granola bars is not going to be sufficient. You need protein, sugar, carbs, veggies, and also lots of fat as it provides a boost of nutrients that’s often lost on the trail.
Not factoring in elevation
Either going up or down, backpacking tends to have an impact on ones elevation. It’s part of the journey and often one of the best parts of it. The simple act of descending into a valley or climbing to a peak opens up new worlds to discover with new foliage, animals, and challenges. The challenges part is where most go wrong. Climbing in elevation will lower the local temperatures dramatically, about 3.5 degrees per 1000 feet in fact. The weatherman might tell you it’s going to be 70 degrees, but that’s for your city. That’s likely 50 on the peak of your favorite crag. Gaining elevation also exposes campers to high winds, conductive heat loss, large amounts of humidity, risks of lightning, and can virtually eliminates water sources in many areas. Descending can boost temperatures, may create flooding risks, exposes camps to falling currents of cold wet air, and can provide campers with falling branches and trees to contend with. Going down can even correlates with the heightened occurrence of wildlife, especially mammals. Not to mention, climbing and descending is hard on the body. Descending will pound joints and knees while ascending will tap out energy reserves and dehydrate hikers via sweating. It’s also worth noting that climbing can reduce progress to a crawl, grinding progress down to less than 1 mile per hour in some cases. So, before you hit a trail, calculate the temperature you can expect to find at the peak, factor in your slowing pace, and consider the challenges that your site might pose, such as intense wind, falling trees, or simply the lack of a wind break.
Bringing the wrong gear
Backpacking gear isn’t universally useful. Gear that is perfect for the blue skies of California may leave a camper in Maine soaking wet even on a dry day. Gear that’s luxurious at the camp ground is likely going to fail the test of backpacking. It’s important to consider where you’re hiking and camping when choosing the gear that you bring along. When camping on the East Coast, you’ll most certainly need a double walled tent, one with an inner body and outer fly. This will prevent contact with condensation that will unavoidably stick to the inside of your tent from wetting out your clothing, sleeping bags and everything else inside. Essentially, the high humidity in the air moistens the waterproof fabric on a tent, and if you touch it, you’re wet. However, a single walled tent can work wonders in a dry dessert or mountain pass out west, as condensation and humidity generally isn’t an issue. This will shave a lot of weight as you’re leaving out an entire layer of fabric from the equation. Another example; Synthetic insulation works better than down on the East Coast for similar reasons. Often, getting wet is unavoidable in the Smokey Mountains and if you’re going to be exposed to days of hiking in the rain in Virginia, a down jacket might flatten out and become useless from the wetness. However, the often dry and frigid mountains of Colorado can be perfect for down, as it’s lighter and provides more warmth for less weight. Although having a nice down jacket packed away in a waterproof sack for when you reach camp is highly recommended, even on the East Coast. I’ve even noticed backpackers carrying universal fuel stoves that require carrying liquid fuel and pumps, which weigh much more than gas canister stoves that work just fine under about 10,000 feet in elevation. Pumps are only necessarily at very high elevations or in very cold weather. All that extra weight is wasted in most conditions Packing in a 4 season tent during the summer will result in some unbearably hot July nights, as opposed to the breezy mesh walls of a 3 season shelter. So, keep this kind of thinking in the back of your mind. Are you really using that piece of gear in the right place? Is there something better you can use in your situation? Also keep in mind that where you purchase a piece of gear will often represent it’s quality and intended use. A tent from Walmart, while affordable, will not provide real protection in a backcountry storm, where your comfort or even survivability may rely on it’s quality.
Obsessing over campfires
Oh yes. I’m about to hate on camp fires for a bit. Blasphemy you say, but hear me out. Beginners often see a campfire as the very definition of camping, and without it the experience just isn’t the same. Eventually though, the most experienced backpackers start to forget about camp fires altogether. Campfires are a lot of work, gathering dead (you better not be chopping down trees or cutting living branches out there) wood, kindling, starting the fire, managing the fire… it’s exhausting. And for what cause? To stay warm? If you’re prepared with proper clothing, a solid tent and a warm sleeping bag and pad, staying warm is trivial and much better suited to hardware than flame. Flame only keeps you warm while you’re beside it, and it does a relatively poor job of that, but solid equipment will keep you warm forever. Fire burns gear, makes jackets smokey, often damages campsites, and more often lately, can eradicate entire forests as the fire gets out of the control of inexperienced, or even veteran, campers. Dress better, get a better sleeping bag and a nice lantern, and you too will soon forget about a campfire, and you won’t even miss it. In my experience I find it much more serene and relaxing to watch a falling sun with my companion from my favorite peak, nestled inside my toasty sleeping bag beside my tent than to be constantly fighting an unwilling ember. My attention is better spent elsewhere.
Playing music through speakers. Cut that stuff out. Fellow campers don’t want to hear your music, and it can often be heard from miles away in the outdoors. Headphones are lighter, sound better and will not infuriate fellow outdoor enthusiast.
Not dealing with trash properly. Pack it out, all of it and always. Burning trash causes pollution, releases toxins, and is often left behind in a pile of ash unfinished.
Not getting permits. New to the area backpackers may not be aware that the location requires a permit, and it can result in a hefty fine. Check ahead for park regulations and to see if permits are required.
Not staking out tents. Even a tent that’s partially staked out with gear inside can and often does blow away. Like that new sleeping bag? Hammer your tent down, and guy it out properly. A tent without stakes has been passionately coined a kite, and for good reason. I’ve witnessed this firsthand. It’s funny for me, but tragic for the poor chap that’s chasing through shelter down a mountain. For a guide on how to properly pitch a tent, check here.
Depleting your cell phone battery. Playing games and taking photos is fun, but being able to call 911 after you’ve shattered your femur is far better. Pack in a designated device or an extra battery if you plan to use your phone for entertainment.
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