Updated July 30, 2019

30 Backpacking Mistakes Every Beginner Makes

Whether it's your first trip or you are a seasoned adventurer, everyone is going to forget something. It might be something small, like your favorite spices to make dinner taste better, or a much bigger mistake like blister prevention or a lighter, but something will be left behind. Before you set out on any backpacking trip, review the list of common mistakes that are made by people setting out on the trail.

Whether it's a one-night weekend trip or several months on the AT, once you are in the wilderness, there's not much you can do about some of the most common mistakes. Check your list of preparations and make sure you are ready to go before heading out to the trailhead!

Backpack © kooikkari (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

Preparation and Packing Mistakes

  1. Wearing New Boots
    This is the cardinal rule for all hikers and backpackers: break in your boots before you hit the trail. Nothing will bring more misery upon any trip than using boots that are fresh out of the box.

  2. Sunscreen
    Leaving behind sun protection can cause your skin to chafe and peel, causing nothing but pain. Pack long sleeves, a hat with full facial and neck cover, and long pants - and don't forget the sunscreen. SPF-15 or better should do the trick, and you can save on pack space by combining the sunscreen with bug spray.

  3. Blister Medication
    Protection against blisters is vital on any hiking or backpacking trip, whether it's for one day or one summer. You need your feet to be happy and healthy every step of the way, so don't forget the moleskin or think you won't need it.

  4. Bug Spray
    Bug spray with DEET will keep away pesky mosquitos while preventing against bites, itches and rashes. It's a small addition to your pack that will go a long way. You don't want to hike over ten miles per day and be covered in annoying bites while you walk.

  5. First Aid
    Packing something as simple as medicine and band-aids can make all the difference. Learning a little bit of first aid will protect against infections, blisters and injuries that could end your trip early.

  6. Leatherman
    A good Swiss Army knife will come in handy for food, cooking, supplies, storage, gear and emergencies. It might seem like it's not worth the extra pack weight, but you'll be happy you brought one along.

  7. Overpacking or Underpacking
    There are tomes of books dedicated to finding the sweet spot of packing. Ultra-light enthusiasts will saw off the handle of a toothbrush and only wear one set of clothing for the entire hike. At the other end of the spectrum, you might not need a collection of novels and your computer for the trail.

  8. Choosing the Wrong Backpack
    Practice with your gear before you hit the big trail. Your backpack should sit comfortably on your hips and move with your body. An uncomfortable or poorly-sized pack will slow you down and cause you pain.

  9. Wearing the Wrong Materials
    Leave the cotton at home - it'll soak through and take ages to try. Focus on wool and polyester materials that can breathe, wick away moisture and dry fast if you get stuck in the rain.

  10. Forgetting Bear Spray
    Even though bear attacks are extremely rare, they can be deadly. If you're hiking in bear country, have some bear spray at the ready just in case of an emergency.

  11. Skimping on a Tent, Sleeping Bag and Boots
    If you are on a multi-day adventure, this is not where you save money. You want a tent, sleeping bag, boots and gear that will hold up in the rain, on the trail and in the cold. You are going to put your gear through its greatest test, so make sure you invest wisely in good outdoor gear.

The Long Trail
The Long Trail © DaiLuo (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Mistakes on the Trail

  1. Taking Shortcuts / Hiking Off-Trail
    It might look like all you have to do is climb that ridge and you'll shave some time off the hike. It's not worth it - the trail is there for a reason. At best, you might have a much more difficult time that increases fatigue. At worst, you get lost. Stay on the trail.

  2. Not Checking the Weather
    Even if you've done your research on watching for storm signs or you have a GPS, solar battery and cell service, ignoring the weather is a big no-no. Heavy rain can bog you down or make you lose the trail. Respect Mother Nature and don't get in over your head, even if it costs you a day.

  3. Hiking Solo
    If it's your first time or even if you're a seasoned hiker, going alone increases your chances of getting lost or not receiving help in case of an emergency.

  4. Traveling in Too Big a Group
    The flip side of hiking solo might mean you don't get to fully experience the trail. Your intentions to escape could be deterred by going with a giant group, and you never receive the solitude you're hoping to achieve.

  5. Poison Ivy
    Do your homework so you know what plants you can touch. Being covered in a painful rash can ruin your trip for days.

  6. Ticks
    Ticks carry diseases and harmful bacteria that can be prevented by wearing long pants, long sleeves and checking your skin on a regular basis. Know what to look for and avoid leaving the trail to wander through tall grass.

  7. Water Treatment
    Invest in a good water treatment system and test it out before you hike. Know how to use your gear so that you don't make any mistakes when you're in the wilderness. Drinking harmful water can sideline you or even end your adventure early.

  8. Letting Fatigue Set In
    Listen to your body! If you need to stop and rest, then stop and rest. Pushing it too hard, trying to get in that extra mile or moving along to the next campsite can end up prolonging your trip in the long run. Know your body and your limits so that you stick to the game plan you set in place before hiking.

  9. Getting Your Sleeping Bag Wet
    Nothing can ruin your night of sleep more than having your goose-feathered down sleeping bag get soaked. Make sure it is stored in a waterproof stuff sack and you have a tarp for your backpack.

  10. Not Using a Map, Compass or GPS
    Learn how to navigate before you hike. An excellent trail map is the bare minimum you should have. Even more sensible is to bring along a regional map and compass. Or spend a little extra money for a GPS with the map loaded on the device.

  11. Forgetting to Stretch Every Day
    Aches, strains and pains will slow you down and have the potential to cause bigger injuries. Take care of your body, rest when you need to rest and make sure to stretch out those joints and muscles.

  12. Not Eating or Drinking Enough Food and Water
    Food and water act as your body's fuel for the adventure. Depriving yourself of nutrients will make you weaker, more susceptible to mistakes and injuries and will end up slowing you down. Make sure that you are filling up your water reserves on a regular basis, that you are drinking a full liter every couple of miles, and that you are eating enough food to keep you charged.

  13. Using Trekking Poles Wrong
    Most people put their hands through trekking poles the wrong way, which hinders their ability to catch themselves in a fall. Keep your hands available and your poles at the right length so they do what they're supposed to do.

  14. Knowing Your Speed
    Go at a pace that works for you. Slow and steady wins the race. If you're going with a group, make sure someone hikes with you or ask people to slow down.

Labor Day
Labor Day © John Fowler (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Mistakes at Camp

  1. Eating in Your Tent
    Food in the tent is a big no-no. You don't want to wake up in the middle of the night because a little critter burrowed into the tent for the candy bar you enjoyed. Odors attract animals and any tent damage will last you for the rest of your hike.

  2. Food Storage
    Educate yourself on the proper methods for hanging food in an odor-free bear container that is out of reach and won't attract any animals. You want it sealed and locked so that ambitious squirrels don't climb the tree and make their way into your supplies.

    Related: Best Coolers

  3. Leaving a Trace
    Treat nature with the respect it deserves. Pack everything in and everything out. This includes food and waste (of all kinds), and triple-check your camp before setting out to ensure that nothing is left behind.

  4. Eating Unappetizing Food
    If all you have is energy bars and rehydrated food, you won't be looking forward to eating by the second week. Consider adding spices, salt, pasta and rice for some variety. Take advantage of camping stores so you can have some fancier sauces and options on occasion.

  5. Forgetting to Enjoy the Adventure
    Overnight backpacking trips are life-changing. After you are as prepared as you are ever going to be, make sure you enjoy every minute of the trip and hold onto those memories forever.

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