Photo by Bureau of Land Management. Used under Creative Commons.
“They” say experience is the best teacher. What “they” neglect to add is that you can also learn from other people’s
mistakes experiences without experiencing the thing itself. This goes for any area of life, backpacking and hiking included. No matter how many books you read on backpacking to help you prepare for your first ever hiking trip, you're still bound to make a mistake or two while backpacking. There are a few mistakes that seem to repeat themselves all throughout the annals of backpacking beginners though, so instead of repeating these mistakes, take a few minutes to learn from the typical beginner’s experience.
The Disastrous Dresser
We all know that it’s important to dress for success when it comes to the professional world. Well, the same goes for the great outdoors. You'll need to be dressed appropriately if you want a successful backpacking trip. Improper clothes can guarantee an uncomfortable hike. It can sometimes even lead to serious injury. So if you want to avoid having a this-is-the-last-time-you'll-ever-catch-me-doing-this hike, you'll need to think hard about what you'll be wearing.
A lot of beginner hikers think that rubber shoes or sneakers are great for hiking. And they would be during the first hour of the trek. It won’t take much time, though, until this sneaker-wearing beginner is singing a different tune. While sneakers or rubber shoes are certainly comfortable, they aren't built for trekking in the wild. Hiking shoes, on the other hand, can ensure that your feet are comfortable whether you're walking on a flat trail or an uneven one filled with rocks and roots. The height of the boots also ensures that you won't injure your ankle if you slip, stumble, or fall.
As for your actual clothes, many beginner backpackers are unaware how unsuitable clothes made of cotton are for the great outdoors. Cotton retains moisture which means it will take a lot of time to dry out if it gets wet (even if it's just from your sweat). Clothes made from wool, silk, or synthetics are a better option.
One of the worst mistakes that beginner backpackers make is not getting mentally and physically prepared for a hike. A lot of people think that hiking is just plain walking in the great outdoors. Unfortunately, there's a lot more to it than that. No matter what kind of trail, any hiker, experienced or otherwise, needs to get into shape and build endurance.
Mental preparation for beginner hikers means knowing what your limits are. Many novices are too stubborn to listen to their bodies, feeling the need to prove themselves capable. Unfortunately, this stubbornness and lack of mental preparation can lead to strained/pulled muscles or, worse, injuries due to exhaustion. Knowing when to stop is something that any hiker, experienced or otherwise, should be able to do.
Failure to prepare also means not having the proper supplies or having too much. Some beginner backpackers think that dialing down on the things you'll be bringing with you is a good thing because you won't be carrying much weight with you while hiking. If you lack experience, this could land you in a pit of misery without food, water, appropriate clothing, or whatever else you decided not to bring with you. Some novices make the mistake of bringing too much, carrying a lot of stuff that they won't even get to use. The best way to avoid this mistake is to have a backpacking checklist to make sure that you're neither over-prepared or underprepared.
The Weather Ignoramus
A little rain never hurt anyone, right? Well, that's what most novices think anyway when they hear a forecast of rain on the day of their hike.The weather is actually an incredibly important factor on what equipment (i.e. tent, sleeping bag, backpack) and clothes you'll need for your hike. More importantly, serious weather can mean dangerous trail conditions that novices won't be able to handle.
In order to avoid this costly mistake, make sure that you check the National Weather Service’s website or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website to find out what the weather will be like at the location you’ll be hiking in.
The Novice with a Need for Speed
Novice backpackers are almost always so eager to get to the end of the trail that they tend to rush during the easier or earlier portions of the hike. Unfortunately, this wears them out quickly; they lose all the energy they need in order to get through the rough patches of the trail. To avoid this mistake, keep a delightful mental image of a turtle in your mind and chant from time to time: slow and steady wins the race. With a steady pace, you're able to conserve your energy for the steep climbs or rough "roads" as well as enjoy the beauty of nature surrounding you (wouldn’t want to miss that!). You'll also lower your chances of slipping, sliding, stumbling, or falling, things that could occur when you race through your hike.
Of course, there are plenty of other mistakes that you can make as a beginner backpacker. You could wear your boots fresh out of the box, not taking the time to break them in. You could have brought a first aid kit that rivals those used by Marines. You could bring equipment that you don’t know how to use. Sure, knowing about the most common mistakes can help you avoid them. But let’s be real, you can’t prepare for every little thing. Hiking is an activity that requires learning, where you’re constantly challenged and faced with the unknown. The best thing you can do is to have a sense of adventure and to learn from every hiking trip you make.