Don’t Do as I Did

When I started backpacking, I didn’t know anything. I’ve learned a ton over the years from observing others and through a lot of trial and error. I honestly believe that making mistakes and learning from them is one of the best ways to learn. However, I also wish I’d had a mentor to show me the basics before I went out and floundered around in the woods. So, today I’m going to share the five biggest mistakes I made starting out. Hopefully you’ll find them helpful or amusing!

#1 All the Wrong Gear

Gear is tough. What works for one person may not work for another and the best way to determine your individual gear set-up will always involve trial and error. However, I can tell you the things I brought that absolutely shouldn’t be on anyone’s gear list. I started backpacking by borrowing gear from friends. This is definitely a good way to go so you can find what you do and don’t like before you buy. However, be sure you’re borrowing appropriate backpacking gear, rather than car camping gear. My first backpacking trip I carried a giant family-size car camping tent because I didn’t know the difference. On my second backpacking trip I carried a cast-iron skillet. Seriously, just don’t go there. On my third backpacking trip, I was instructed to carry a bear bagging rope, which is really more of a utility line. I carried an actual rope…from my parent’s barn. It weighed 3 pounds. And last, but not least, what you do carry is also as important as what you don’t. I didn’t carry a sleeping bag because I thought it would be warm enough in the summer to go without. You always need a sleeping bag/quilt/liner, trust me.

#2 Not Enough Water

I started backpacking in the Grand Canyon during the height of summer. I can’t imagine a more magnificent place to start experiencing the natural world on a deeper level. I also can’t imagine a more difficult one. I ran out of water a lot and had some close calls. This was primarily because I’d previously never been active and had no concept of fluid needs while moving. I doubt I even knew how much to drank sitting around the house. Sweat rate varies a lot from person to person and ideally, you’ll determine yours prior to setting out on a longer adventure (there are plenty of calculators online). But knowing how much water you need to replace is only half the equation. Knowing where you can get more water along the way is just as important. This is the part that actually requires research and planning. In arid places such as the Grand Canyon water sources are few and far between. They are also unreliable. You have to be prepared to carry more than you need and have your map marked with plenty of options. Anytime you go on a trip that’s more than a day, plan your water strategy before leaving home and carry extra just in case a source is dry.

#3 Too Much Food

I started the Appalachian Trail in 2003 with 14 days of food. I was going northbound and the first place you can acquire more food was only 31 miles into the trail! Two weeks of food is an enormous amount and usually unnecessary. Even extremely remote areas often have resorts or outfitting services who will accept mail drops. That said, it’s always smart to carry some extra rations, but typically no more than an extra day or two of food.

#4 All the Wrong Food

Hand in hand with carrying too much was the type of food I was carrying. I had gallon bags of plain quick oats and plain instant rice because I’d read that hikers ate oatmeal and rice. I can assure you that it didn’t take long for me to throw that out and buy food that was actually appetizing! Bring food that is nutritious, calorie-dense and tastes good. Often exertion can be an appetite suppressant and if your food isn’t appealing it will make it even harder to eat. Don’t pack foods because you think you should eat them, pack foods you want to eat. And don’t forget the mini-spice kit!

#5 Don’t Pack Your Fears

Turns out, fears can be heavy. If you were to examine the contents of my backpack when I started the Appalachian Trail in 2003 you’d easily deduce that I was afraid of being hungry (see above) and being naked. Or something along those lines. In addition to those two weeks of food I had seven t-shirts and three pairs of pants/shorts! For reference, most thru-hikers carry one set of clothes to hike in and one to sleep in. A few will carry a town shirt too. I will say though that all those clothes came in handy those first two weeks when I was freezing without a sleeping bag!

When helping people with their packs at the start of long trips I can often pinpoint the things people are afraid of by the preponderance of related items in their backpacks. Classic examples include too much food and/or water, too many clothes, too many electronics, too complex and voluminous of a first aid kit. At the core, backpacking is about moving through nature and experiencing it in a more intimate way. Bring what you need to be there, but don’t pack for every wild contingency out of a sense of fear or a long list of what-ifs.

As it turns out, even without a clue, I ended up making it through my solo backpacking trips in the Grand Canyon, as well as thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. I made so many mistakes along the way, but in the end, they made me wiser and smarter. In addition to the handful of stories above, I recommend new backpackers (and all outdoor enthusiasts) check out for information on how to respectfully travel in wild places.

Heather Anderson

Heather Anderson

National Geographic Adventurer of the year, Heather Anderson—known as Anish on trails—became the second female to complete the “Double Triple Crown of Backpacking” in 2017. In 2018 she simultaneously became the first female Triple Triple Crowner and the first female Calendar Year Triple Crowner when she hiked all three long trails in one March-November season. Heather holds the overall self-supported Fastest Known Time (FKT) on the Pacific Crest Trail (2013)–hiking it in 60 days, 17 hours, 12 min, which broke the previous men’s record by four days and established the first female record. She also holds the female self-supported FKT on the Appalachian Trail (2015) in a time of 54 days, 7 hours, 48 minutes, and the Arizona Trail (2016) which she completed in 19 days, 17 hours, 9 minutes. Heather has hiked over 30,000 miles since 2003 including 14 thru-hikes. She is also an ultra-marathon runner and has completed six 100 mile races since August 2011 as well as dozens of 50k and 50 mile events. When not on an adventure Heather speaks regularly about her adventures and the lessons learned on trail. She is the author of Thirst: 2600 Miles to Home (chronicling her Pacific Crest Trail record). A second book is due out in early 2021.

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