10 Common Beginner Backpacking Mistakes

beginner backpacking mistakes

Over many years of backpacking, I have seen and made many backpacking blunders. Let’s face it, everyone makes mistakes from time to time. Some of these can be downright comical, while others can be quite dangerous. Here is a list of 10 common mistakes that I have encountered on the trail. Hopefully reading about them can help you to avoid making similar missteps on your future trips.

#1 Packing Too Much

packing to much in your backpack

Many people say that you pack your fears. For instance, you might be afraid of running out of food or you might be afraid of getting too cold at night. This can lead you to bringing excessive amounts of food and clothing on your trips. In turn, this can add pounds of unnecessary weight to your backpack.

A rule of thumb you can go by, so that you don’t pack too much food, is to have 2 lbs of calorie dense food for each day.

With clothing in the warmer months, what you pack should be based on a 3 layer system. A base layer (synthetic t-shirt and pants), thermal layer (down jacket), and a waterproof shell layer (rain jacket). With maybe additional items like a hat, gloves, and an extra pair of socks.

When your backpacking, you could also have the urge to bring certain creature comforts like camp chairs, large cook sets, or a hatchet for cutting wood. These items might be nice to have, but when climbing a mountain or covering large miles of trail, you’re going to be wishing you left them at home real quick.

#2 Overestimating Your Hiking Ability

This is one lesson that I learned the hard way. On some trails, you can easily knock out 15 miles or more in one day because the terrain is relatively flat and not rocky. But let’s say you’re planning a trip to the Adirondack High Peaks and your hike consists of multiple 4,000 ft mountain peaks on some extremely rocky terrain. Trying to still knock out 15 miles could be a costly miscalculation. Challenging terrain can have a huge impact on how much ground you can cover.

You should always take the time to look very closely at topographical maps and guidebooks of the region before your trip. Then plan accordingly. Sometimes you may have to cut your projected mileage in half because of difficult terrain.

#3 Navigation Mistakes

getting lost backpacking

Getting lost is easy to do. You always hear in the news every year of hikers getting lost in the wilderness. In fact, surprisingly, a large portion of rescues in our national forests are not due to individuals being injured, but instead being lost or missing. A large reason for this is because people are often overconfident in their navigation skills.

Here are a few practical ways to help you avoid getting lost. Make sure to have a very detailed topographical map that shows elevation, trail names, distances, and names of landmarks. I really like the National Geographic maps. Also, anytime you come to a trail junction, pull out your map to verify the right trail to take, even if you think you know where to go. One thing further, you can do to keep from getting lost is to learn how to use a compass.

#4 Not Prepared For Bad Weather

Weather is one area you can’t afford to be careless about. It could mean your life. But all to often people still go hiking without really thinking about it. One time I went backpacking with a couple of guys and many of them didn’t bring coats or much of anything for cold weather. That night, on top of the mountain, it snowed and dipped down in temperature to the teens. Needless to say, they froze during the night.

Some things that you can do so you’re not taken by surprise by bad weather is to make sure to check the weather forecast ahead of time. And don’t just look at weather.com but actual mountain forecasts. Elevation can make a big difference with what kind of weather you will be facing. Down low in the valley it could be warm and raining while up high at the summit it could be cold and snowing.

Weather is also very unpredictable, it’s always good practice to bring some outerwear. In the woods or mountains, it’s typical that at night it will get cold, so an insulated jacket would be important to have. Also, a surprise rainstorm could pop up especially in the summer months, so having a rain jacket would be invaluable.

#5 Flooding Your Shelter

swamping your tent

After a long day of hiking, you want nothing more than to be able to get a good night’s sleep. Waking up in the middle of the night to a flooded tent and all your gear soaking wet will no doubt prevent this from happening.

To avoid this, make sure not to pitch your tent at any low spots where rain can collect. Think to yourself: “If it rains, where will it go?” Set up your tent in an area that is relatively flat and that the ground drains well, like on top of pine needles, leaves, or uncompacted dirt.

If you’re using a footprint (a tarp to protect the floor of a shelter) for your tent, make sure to tuck the outer edges underneath the tent so that the rain isn’t encouraged to go under your tent.

#6 Poor Water Plan

Water is one of the most important factors in planning a hike. You always need to know where the water sources are. If not planned properly, you could make a critical error and be hiking for miles with nothing to drink.

To keep this from happening, make sure to look at your map ahead of time and look for water sources such as streams, lakes, or springs. Then check the mileage between them. Ask yourself: “Is 2 liters of water enough for me to get to the next water source?” “Is there a steep section on the trail where I will use more water than normal?” Considering these things will keep you safe and make your next hike more pleasant.

#7 Ignoring “Leave No Trace” Principles

Trash at a camp spot

In America, we have one of the best national forest and park systems in the world. We can experience so many amazing natural wonders here. But if we are not careful these remarkable landscapes and ecosystems could be permanently ruined by our destructive behavior. When hiking, I have come across trash and even found human waste and toilet paper not properly disposed of. The best thing we can do to protect our wild areas and keep them pristine is to become familiar with “Leave No Trace” principles and make it a priority to put them into practice.

Here are some basic rules to go by:

  • Make sure to pack out all of your trash

  • Dig a cathole to bury your human waste

  • Avoid using soap or toothpaste near a water source

  • Observe wildlife from a distance

  • Use only existing campsites so disturbances to the vegetation are kept to a minimum

For more information on Leave No Trace principles check out lnt.org

#8 Bringing Untested Gear

We all get excited about new gear. It might be that we get a new ultralight tent or a new stove that has all these really cool features on it. But testing these items out for the first time shouldn’t be when we are in the middle of the wilderness. What if you can’t figure out how to use them?

Make sure you have practiced using your new gear ahead of time and become very familiar with how they work. Then you won’t be stuck in situations like struggling to set up your new tent in a downpour or be starving and unable to cook food on your new stove.

#9 Hanging Your Bear Bag Wrong

wrong way to hang a bear bag

This is a big one. Most people know that they have to hang their food from a tree. But they often fail to do it the right way. I see so many backpackers just hang their bear bag on a branch right next to their tent and just tie it off at the trunk of the tree. This is an easy way to invite animals to your camp for a meal.

Make sure you’re following the proper guidelines for hanging your bear bag. Your bear bag should be at least 100 ft downwind from your campsite and you should use the safer PCT style method to hang your food.

Learn More At: How to Hang a Bear Bag: The Right Way

#10 Wearing Cotton

In your daily life most of the time you’re probably wearing a cotton shirt and jeans especially when you’re around the house. But bringing that type of clothing backpacking would be a big mistake. Cotton fabric doesn’t dry quickly. Instead, it holds moisture in like a sponge. So when you’re hiking, whether it’s in the winter or summer, you’ll be exerting yourself and inevitably be sweating. Any moisture on your skin will be absorbed in your cotton clothing. This could cause you to feel very uncomfortable in the warmer summer months and when it’s winter it could lead to you getting colder more quickly and possibly even hypothermia.

Instead of using clothing made from cotton, look for synthetic materials like polyester, nylon, polypropylene, or a blend of these fabrics. When moisture hits these materials they don’t hold onto it but wick it away and keep you dry and feeling comfortable no matter what the season.