Despite growing up in North Carolina—a state with plenty to see and do outdoors—MYSTERY RANCH ambassador Andrea Cannon wasn’t much of a hiker or backpacker until she and her husband moved to Salt Lake City for his surgical residency. It was there that her interest in the outdoors quickly blossomed. Before long, she was hiking some of the local trails. Her explorations soon led to backpacking, camping, and skiing trips throughout the American West.
Over the past six years, Andrea has gone from a complete novice to an experienced backcountry veteran. Along the way, she has picked up valuable skills that have made her an expert backpacker. Like most of us, she learned a lot from her own mistakes and from watching those around her. She has shared some of her wisdom to make that journey easier for others new to backpacking.
Here are the six biggest mistakes that Andrea sees beginner backpackers make:
Using the Wrong Pack or One That Isn’t Properly Fitted
An old adage says you need to have “the right tool for the job.” That also applies to the outdoors, where the proper gear can significantly affect how much you enjoy the experience. This was something Andrea learned the hard way as she was getting started with backpacking.
“My first backpacking trip was right after we moved to Utah, and some friends had told us about a great trail in the Uinta Mountains,” she says. “We had no backpacking gear but basically packed camping sleeping bags into a duffel bag with straps that allowed you to wear the duffel like a backpack. Not surprisingly – this was miserable.”
Andrea recommends having a proper pack for use on your backcountry excursions. And once you’ve found the backpack that suits your needs, it is equally important to get it properly fitted to your body. That can make a huge difference in terms of comfort and reducing fatigue.
Carrying Too Much Weight
Another common mistake for beginner backpackers is carrying too much gear. This can lead to an unnecessarily heavy backpack, resulting in some long, slow, and tiring days on the trail.
“Once I upgraded to a proper backpack, I was still carrying too much weight,” Andrea tells us. “This was usually because I had brought too many clothes.”
After a few backcountry trips under her belt, Andrea learned that she didn’t need to bring a separate set of clothes for every day. This allowed her to lighten the load in her pack, shedding excess pounds that were only slowing her down.
“I’ve found that you only really need one outfit to hike in and one to sleep in,” she says.
Forgetting The Ten Essentials
For nearly 50 years, the Ten Essentials of Hiking has been a guide for what we need to take when setting out on a hike. That list includes things like a map and compass, a headlamp, a knife, and additional food, water, and clothing. But Andrea says that some hikers ignore the list or forget some important items, which can be potentially dangerous.
“To go faster on the trail, backpackers often try to cut weight by leaving some crucial pieces of equipment at home,” she says. “But they still need to remember to bring all ten essentials.”
The only exception to this rule is if one of the Ten Essentials is replaced by an alternative item that fills the same role. For example, when hiking a trail with good access to water, Andrea will bring a water filter, alleviating the need to carry water for the entire trip.
Choosing Too Difficult or Too Long a Route
Andrea tells us that inexperienced backpackers tend to overestimate how fast and far they can travel, particularly over rough terrain. This can lead to additional hours on the trail, which can be frustrating and exhausting.
“Hiking with a heavier pack will cause you to move slower than you would on a regular day hike,” she points out. “If you can comfortably hike 10 miles on a day hike, plan for around 7 miles on similar terrain to accommodate for the heavier pack.”
Additionally, she recommends choosing easy to moderate trails for those early backpacking excursions. This gives beginners a chance to build strength and stamina, allowing their bodies to adjust to carrying a heavier backpack. Once they’ve gained experience and confidence, the longer, more challenging routes will seem less daunting.
Skipping a Gear Check Before You Leave
Andrea recommends that backpackers thoroughly check all the gear they’ll carry before embarking on a trip. This is especially true if they’re bringing a new piece of equipment they haven’t used in the field before.
“New gear can arrive damaged, it can be uncomfortable or ill-fitting, or it can be really confusing to use the first time,” she points out. “Trying out your gear at home is important to a successful backpacking trip.”
In addition to testing any new gear, inspecting older equipment that may be starting to wear out is also important. The last thing you need is for an essential item to fail while in the backcountry, especially if a pre-trip inspection may have revealed that it needed replacement. If you discover a piece of equipment is showing significant wear and tear, replace it before setting out.
Checking the Weather at the Base of the Hike, But Not in the Mountains
Most outdoor enthusiasts are obsessive about watching the weather, as it can significantly impact our safety and enjoyment of the outdoors. But Andrea reminds us to be smart and thorough when checking the forecast.
“Weather is an important variable when preparing for a backpacking trip, and it can be drastically different if your elevation is going to change,” she says. “Using websites like mountain-forecast.com can help you prepare for the weather at different points along your route.”
Andrea mentions that weather can change quickly, particularly at altitude. Paying attention to the forecast can help backpackers avoid dangerous situations and stay safe in the backcountry. It is also essential to bring the proper outdoor apparel—like a rain jacket or fleece layer—even if you don’t think you will need them.