Roads Rivers and Trails

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21 Things I Wish I Knew on My First Backpacking Trip

By Kayla McKinney

We all remember our first time out there. The first time we strapped up, laced up those boots, and set off for what was supposed to be a rewarding, life-changing event. Only…the pack was so heavy, you smelled for days, and you just felt so unprepared. Someone told you what to expect, but you didn’t really know. It’s only after we experience mistakes that we learn from them and this is especially true for backpacking. But that doesn’t mean you can’t look for advice from those who have been there before.

Below is a list compiled by some friends and me as a memento of what we wish we knew before our very first backpacking trip.

  1. You don’t need 4 pairs of pants.
    1. If you have the right pants, you should be able to wear the same pair for several days in a row. You might not even need two pairs of pants, realistically. The idea is to lighten your pack by only bringing what is necessary.
  2. Cotton is Rotten/Cotton Kills.
    1. Cotton will pull heat from your body if it’s wet. It will smell horribly and won’t dry very quickly. It will chafe and you will be uncomfortable. This includes your favorite pair of jeans and your snuggly soft hoodie. Save them for the city.
  3. There’s no point in bringing razors. You’re not going to shave out there.
    1. Backpacking is not a beauty pageant. Who are you trying to impress? To tell the truth, you can leave the deodorant in the car as well (but don’t forget your toothpaste!)DSC_0194
  4. “There’s no such thing as bad weather! Your discontent is due to improper gear!” – John Ferree
    1. Good gear is important. You don’t have to go overboard, but you want gear that holds up to the elements. Different gear is appropriate in different situations. Gear can be the difference between staying and leaving, a good time and a bad time, or sometimes even life and death.
  5. Footwear is the most important piece of gear you have.
    1. When backpacking, keeping your feet happy is rule number one. A good pair of hiking shoes or boots coupled with merino wool socks will make a world of difference. The soles on these shoes are designed to protect you from rock bruising and support the muscles in your feet differently than other shoes. Merino wool wicks sweat, prevents blisters, and is anti-microbial. If there is one piece of gear that will make all of the difference, it is proper footwear.
  6. “They’ve started making lighter weight tents since 1994 when I bought mine.”– Aaron Boyd
    1. They’ve started making lighter weight versions of nearly everything. Sometimes it’s really worth it to upgrade your gear. These days, you can turn your 50 lb. pack into a 25 lb. pack without sacrificing much of anything.
  7. Modern backpacks come in various sizes and are adjustable to fit the contours of your body.
    1. Everyone is shaped differently, whether it is torso length, hip width, or shoulder girth. Backpacks can and should be customized to fit your body appropriately. Look to someone who knows what they are doing to help you be as comfortable as possible with your bag on. If you borrowed a bag, make sure it is the right size and ask your friend or local outfitter to help you to adjust it to fit you specifically.
  8. “Bring food you like! 7 days of oatmeal for breakfast is better when you end the night with a tasty dinner.” – Todd Cline
    1. Vary your snacks as well. Save something special for a hard day to reward your accomplishments.
  9. You’re going to eat everything you have. Bring more food than you think you’ll need.
    1. Once again, hiking takes a lot of energy, so be mindful and put in the fuel you need so that you’re not running on fumes all day. A long distance hiker can burn up to 5,000 calories a day. Skip low-cal, low-fat foods. Calories and fat are code words for energy.
  10. There’s no bathroom.
    1. No bathroom for days.
  11. If you’re going to use leaves as TP, plan ahead. Make sure there are appropriate leaves where you’re going.
    1. Sometimes I grab nice leaves as I walk past them knowing that they will be useful later. You want large, smooth, and abundant leaves.
  12. Bring sunscreen.
    1. If you are outside all day, the sun will burn you. This goes especially for times when you’re above tree line, right up in the sun’s business. Sleeping in a sleeping bag is terrible if you are sunburnt.
  13. “…it’s good to hike early in the morning, but not to be first on the trail. Spider web clearing is a creepy job.”– TJStatt
    1. If you do have the job of being first in line, first thing in the morning, consider waving a stick in front of you as you walk to clear the spider webs. Trekking poles work great. If you’re afraid of spiders, perhaps let someone else lead.
  14. Marmots are cute, but can be evil. Same goes for mice, raccoons, porcupines and chipmunks.
    1. If you let them, they’ll eat everything. Your food, socks, hip belts, etc.
  15. Snakes, bears and other dangerous animals rarely want anything to do with you.DSC_0610
    1. You are a bear’s only predator. They want to be far away from you. Let them be and obey proper bear country safety tips.
    2. Most snake bites occur when the animal is handled. Give them space and they’ll give you space.
  16. Waking up to watch the sunrise is always worth it no matter how cold and tired you are.
    1. The sun will warm your body and getting an early start will ensure that you enjoy all that nature has to offer. Every day starts with a sunrise. Enjoy them.
  17. Never try to cross an exposed ridge or summit after noon if possible.
    1. Afternoon storms are the real deal and should not be taken lightly. Never underestimate a big cloud. Things can escalate quickly and there’s little to no protection up above tree line.
  18. It is worth it to climb out of your tent and urinate in the middle of the night.
    1. You will sleep better. You will be warmer not having to keep waste fluid at body temperature all night. Plus, you will get the chance to appreciate the night sky in all of its glory.
  19. “Carrying firewood into the forest is unnecessary weight.” – KurtGaerther
    1. Surprisingly not as obvious as it should be: there’s usually a lot of dead wood in the forest (and only use dead wood! Live, green wood doesn’t burn well). Pay attention to the regulations in place if you plan on building a fire. Also note that bringing in firewood from another area can spread parasites and is forbidden in many states.
  20. Duct tape is extremely useful.
    1. You can repair gear, prevent blisters, make a belt, and find a hundred other uses. Wrap it around your water bottle or trekking poles to save room. It is a multifunctional tool.
  21. Cameras will never do it justice.
    1. If you really want someone to see the place, take them there.

Nobody knows it all. Even the most experienced backpacker makes mistakes now and then. Despite all the things it seems like you need to know before you go, go anyway without knowing it all. Take chances and learn from your mistakes. The only thing you really need to know is that it’s always worth it.

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