I am by definition a novice backpacker. So don't think i've been on some incredible life changing thru hike. I've literally been on two trails. That's it. Though I will fight anyone who says the Fiery Gizard Trail is easy....
My first two trips were such a great learning experience and they've set me up for years of more prepared backpacking. I thought I would share some of my (extremely limited) wisdom for the first time backpacker.
Go with someone who knows what they are doing.
Make sure you aren’t stuck in the backcountry with someone who hasn’t done the appropriate research about your trip. Make sure you have proper water sources, enough food, you know precisely what paths you are taking, etc.
No matter how tempting it is to go on a jumbled, thrown together, “let’s just GO!” backpacking weekend, I don’t recommend seeking out THAT big of an adventure if you are just as inexperienced as the dumbo planning it. My first trip was planned and executed with incredible precision by a trusted, experienced Boy Scout leader. That’s the type of trail captain you want for your first trip.
Don’t overdo it on your first trip.
You don’t need an expedition the first time you’re dipping your toes in the backcountry waters. I’d suggest keeping your total mileage between 10-15 miles (or less! My first trip was only 6!) with minimal elevation gain. This is most likely your first time carrying all of your belongings on your back for an extended time. Don’t ask too much of yourself.
Borrow. Don’t buy.
Now this is a suggestion I didn’t follow. I knew that when I went on my first trip that I would be using my gear for years to come. But if this a completely new activity for you, I encourage you to try borrow a friend’s gear instead. You can spend anywhere from $250-$1,000 on backpacking equipment (frighteningly easy to do, no matter how absurd that seems), so save your cash and borrow or rent some equipment until you’re ready to make the investment.
For locals, I know that there is backpacking equipment available to rent through ORAC at WKU!
Don’t pack your bag alone.
Ask questions at your local outdoor store, or the ask the trip leader how to pack efficiently. I promise you there will be no judging. Backpackers love to nerd out about their kit. Make sure you learn the method of weight distribution when packing. It’ll make your miles a whole lot easier to bear.
Don’t over pack
If you’ve done any backpacking research you’re going to have already read about weight, weight, weight. Your base weight is important. This includes your entire pack and contents minus your consumables (your food and water). You don’t want to be staggering through the woods with a 7 pound tent, 4 pound sleeping bag and a 2 pound sleeping pad. Keep your essentials lightweight so you have enough room/energy to haul your water and meals. Clothing takes up a TON of room. Try to plan out what you’ll wear each moment of the trip
Subpoint: layer, layer, layer. Make sure all clothing works together and is multipurpose. Bring lightweight layers you can piles on in case of colder temperatures, and then ditch when the sun comes out.
Don’t be so worried about weight that you leave out a few comfort items.
I know this seems to contradict the previous point, but just listen. There are a couple things you might want to bring along to make “roughin’ it” a little bit less…rough! My biggest things are:
Extra pair of camp socks for the evenings. Keep those feet dry and warm at the end of the day!
In-camp shoes. I am partial to Birkenstocks (they are lightweight and easily lashed to your pack) for my camp shoes, but a dollar pair of flip flops are great too. Believe me, after you’ve been walking miles in a day, you are going to want to ditch those chunky hiking shoes and let those barking dogs breathe.
Extra bras and underwear. I’m going to be real (and we haven’t even gotten to pooping out doors yet…..) I’m a sweater. And if I’m hiking or backpacking in temperatures above 75, it’s not going to be pretty. Being able to change into dryer clothing for the night is a major blessing
Share weight when possible.
Coordinate with your trail peeps and make sure you all aren’t packing multiples. You don’t need five stoves, ten canisters of propane, four bottles of sunscreen (well, if I’m with you that may be necessary – redhead problems.), and three water filters. You only need one of each with maybe a few backups depending on the trip. Communication is key.
If you’re cool with sharing tents, split up the poles/rainfly/tent into two or three hiker’s packs. That way one person isn’t stuck with the full weight.
No bathrooms. Don’t freak out.
Pooping in the woods is inevitable. And it’s weird. But here’s the thing, you’re going to be way more uncomfortable if you try to hold it. Fight through the fact that you’re going to be naked and feeling a little too vulnerable. It’s honestly not as bad after the first time. Make sure you learn how to dig a “cat hole” and bring a tiny trowel to share with the group. You’re gonna feel super proud of yourself after you take care of backwoods business. And for you ladies who may be dealing with Mother Nature on a trip, bring plenty of plastic baggies to carry out your trash, don’t bury that non-biodegradable stuff.
Attitude Issues (This one is for me)
I’m mashing three points into one title here.
- Stay positive and keep complaining to a minimum (unless there’s a legitimate problem obviously!)
- Everyone is hot, everyone is tired. Point out the great things instead of dwelling on momentary discomfort. No one made you come on the trip!
- If you are truly struggling, don’t keep it to yourself.
- You’re companions have no idea If the pace is too fast or you need to break for extra snacks or water. They won’t be able to help if they don’t know! I’ve had full blown panic attacks on trips before, and It was totally okay to take a while and get back to normal. Everyone is going to be so kind and helpful if you give them a chance!
- If the first trip is awful. Give it another chance.
- Learn from what made it bad and make the appropriate changes for the next outing. Remember, second or third time’s the charm!
Maybe this list was a no brainer to some, but hopefully it was helpful for someone who's never ventured out for more than a day hike. I think everyone should carry their belongings on their back for a few nights and see how little you actually need to survive.