Admittedly, I wasn’t prepared for my first backpacking trip. After hearing that getting to our site would only take five and a half miles, I got cocky, imaging longer day hikes of yore. After a mile and a half of steep climbs and some bloodshed, I questioned if I could even make it to camp. Those five and a half miles were the hardest of my life, especially with a loaded pack and the wrong gear. I came out of my first backpacking trip with bloody knees and a hunger that could only be satisfied by a Chinese buffet, but what’s backpacking without some scrapes and bruises?
That being said, I learned some hard lessons that I’ll take with me on future trips:
- Not all backpacks are created equal.
Obviously, right? Not when you’re frugal and stubborn. I used the same backpack from my four years at college. Of course, I knew there were backpacking packs for a reason, but I figured, how different could they really be?
After the trip, more experienced backpackers tried to relate to me. Oh, man. You really feel it around your torso. I felt the wrong kind of burn just about everywhere else – especially in my shoulders – because I had the wrong equipment.
- Make packing light into a game…
Packing as light as possible while still having everything you need is a challenge. It’s one I happily accepted, but in retrospect I could have dropped another pound from my pack. See? Packing becomes a game of testing just how low you can go. In this picture, I would leave some of these items, especially the duct tape. Just put some duct tape around your water bottle to cut down on space or opt for Sugru instead.
- …but don’t skip basic necessities just because you want to lighten your load
Right before we left, I challenged the necessity of a full first aid kit. I grabbed a few bandages and sterile pads and called it a day. Within the first mile of the hike, I took a tumble, gear and all. Luckily, my partner sneakily packed the full kit and patched me up. When you’re in the market for a kit, look for a soft case option for packability, but don’t leave out the first aid kit basics.
- Make sure your first aid kit can handle just about anything.
There’s no need to go overboard, but brainstorm before you pack. What situations are common for backpackers in your area? My partner picked the spot, so I didn’t realize I’d come across horses on the trail. Of course, I’m allergic to horses and didn’t bother to bring any medicine. Throw in allergy relief tablets even if you don’t have any known allergies. Consider buying a venom extractor in case of snake bites. In backcountry, you will have hours or days between you and the nearest hospital, so set yourself up for success.
- Invest in quality gear, especially after your first trip.
Before your trip, you’ll either want to buy out REI or you’ll want to tough it out with only gear you already own. I suggest you start out small on that first trip, hiking less than 10 miles in total. After your first trip with mediocre gear, reflect on what’s necessary and what you can do without.
I’m now in the market for an actual backpack and might try sleeping in my hammock with a tarp next time instead of buying a lightweight tent. Take those lessons from your first backpacking trip to whittle down your wish list.
- Pack morale-boosters to help you get through tough sections.
I had some low points, especially within those first six miles. Two things helped me: my speakers and some old starbursts. Throwing on a podcast with my phone on airplane mode helped distract me from those last miles and any negative thoughts I had. The starburst I ate during the last mile on my way to camp was the best I’ve ever had. It’s about the little things. You don’t need to pamper yourself on the trail, but bringing those things kept my spirits up when it was hard to continue.
- Pack creatively but lightly.
I have a tendency of imagining the worst, which can lead to over-packing. Feed that instinct to #BePrepared by researching clever camping hacks. Don’t waste space with a bunch of fire starters; pack a pencil sharpener instead. Ditch the duct tape and pack some Sugru to fix gear on the trail. Think of new ways to use gear you already need, like using the mesh of your tent as a strainer.
- Research the route and know your way around a map.
The first half of my backpacking trip was mostly uphill, which could have been avoided with proper planning. Our expected two and a half hour hike turned into a five hour climb. Weigh the pros and cons of each trail to find the most efficient route. If there isn’t much to go off of online, use your brain. Follow along in the direction of any rivers or creeks as water flows downhill.
- Find a partner with more experience than you.
You already read about my rookie instincts on the trail. A good partner will have the common sense to challenge any uneducated urges (like ditching most of the first aid kit to make more room). Ask someone you can learn from to accompany you on your first trips. They will teach you any tips they’ve come across in past experiences. My partner wasn’t necessarily a seasoned backpacker, but he showed me the basics.
- Keep going.
Halfway through mile three, I found myself stopping before most hills. Something clicked when I started that last mile, though. I had made the decision to keep going a while back out of stubbornness, but the clarity of that last mile was worth the wait. After a while, you have to keep going because there’s no way you’re turning back. More than that, you can do it and you will feel so accomplished once you’re done.
It was miserable at points, but my first backpacking trip did it for me. I find myself admiring the scars on my legs and reflecting on what I can leave at home when I pack for my next trip. I’m hooked.