On Your First Backpacking Trip, Don’t Do These Things

You live and you learn


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Backpacking and camping can be daunting to get into as a beginner—from knowing what to pack, finding a campsite, to knowing how to layer properly—it’s hard not to feel like you’re the only one in the world who doesn’t know how to do it right. But even us here at Outside have made our share of mistakes.

I was backpacking for the first time—in Iceland of all places—and didn’t think to consider sources of drinking water. My two friends and I knew some locals, so we had them drop us off at a point we’d identified on a map prior to starting our journey. All was fine and dandy until we realized late that night that we didn’t have any water left, and didn’t know where to find any. We hiked for nearly 15 miles down a trail we thought might lead to a glacial lake (there was no lake, we later discovered) before turning back, consuming all of our water-rich food (like cucumbers), crawled into bed, and called for help in the morning. That’s my two friends in the photo above looking despondent with their empty water bladders.

—Emily Reed, assistant editor

On my first adult backpacking trip, I was in the White Mountains of New Hampshire for three days… without a sleeping pad. Growing up in Minnesota, I wasn’t used to how dramatically weather fluctuates in the mountains, and when the sun set, temps plummeted. I kept waking up and grabbing more stuff from my pack throughout the night to stuff under my sleeping bag. By morning, I was sleeping on a towel and every piece of clothing I had with me.

—Abigail Wise, online managing editor

Believe it or not, on my first two-day backpacking trip I didn’t bring a headlamp! What’s worse, I didn’t own one. Instead, I brought a little hand-held flashlight, and spent one uncomfortable night struggling to do camp chores while holding the light in my mouth to leave my hands free. I ordered a Petzl Tikka online as soon as we got home. Now whenever I’m packing for any sort of overnight camping trip, a headlamp is the first item on my list. I’ll even leave an extra one in my car just in case.

—Ariella Gintzler, assistant editor

I was around 10 when I went on my first backpacking trip. At the time I thought long wool socks looked dorky so, despite my parents’ advice, I wore low-cut socks under my hiking boots. Less than a mile down the trail my ankles started to blister. Fortunately, my dad packed moleskin and an extra pair of Smartwools.

—Ben Fox, associate editor

In what was the first backpacking trip for either of us, my boyfriend and I decided to do a five-day backcountry trek in New Zealand. We were carrying a really crappy (not to mention heavy) car camping tent with a broken pole that we’d inherited from the guy we bought our car from—he got it from the New Zealand version of Wal-Mart for about 30 bucks. It leaked whenever it rained, which it did on the first night, of course. All the food we brought was canned, which didn’t help with the weight issue. Plus, we failed to bring any sort of change of socks or sandals to switch into, so we had to wear our boots the whole time, and didn’t have bug repellent to ward off the swarms of sand flies. To top it off, my off-brand Camelbak turned out to have a massive leak, so we ran out of water on the last night.

—Kaelyn Lynch, editorial fellow

On my first backpacking trip, I brought a Jansport bookbag and jeans with holes in the knees. Oh, and I forgot a hairbrush. I was eight at the time. Mishaps included melty pocket cheese, poor backcountry squatting form answering nature’s call, and getting pinned in a forward fold by the weight of my own pack when I bent over to tie my shoes.

—Abigail Barronian, assistant editor

One of my first camping and climbing trips was a flop. In my excitement to boulder in Bishop, California, during prime “sending” temperatures, I shrugged off the below-freezing weather, which was set to hit 10 degrees Fahrenheit at night. At the time—about six years ago—I didn’t have a puffy jacket or know about the miracle that is long underwear. I am a SoCal girl, after all. I shivered through one night in the snowy campground and then bailed home the next day. Since then, I’ve learned all about layering and the wonders of wool and down-insulated clothing.

—Ula Chrobak, editorial production fellow

Want to learn more about backpacking for beginners? Check out our Backpacking 101 online course on Outside Learn, where Outside+ members get full access to our library of more than 50 courses on adventure, sports, health, and nutrition.