Summer of 2018 was the first year that I went backpacking. Before that, it was mainly car camping (in the car or in a tent by the car) and long day hikes averaging over 15 miles per day.
But that summer, I really wanted to be able to spend more time in the mountains, to go further than I could on a day hike and to really experience the mountains. So I gathered my gear, booked permits and spent the summer doing everything from short weekend trips to a 72 mile thru-hike.
Also that summer, I learned a few lessons about backpacking that newbies may not know.
1. WEIGHT DOES MATTER
You don’t need to be an ultralight backpacker (mainly because it gets pretty pricey) but you also don’t need to be carrying 45 pounds. I’ve been there, it sucked, don’t do it.
Basically what I learned is that everything that I don’t really need to survive or be somewhat comfortable leave at home. I bring PJs with me, but I’m going to leave the book at home. Instead, I take photos of pages on my phone and read that way. But honestly, most nights I was so exhausted, I’d just pass out after scribbling in a notebook about that day.
2. REALLY THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU’LL WANT TO EAT
I brought freeze dried food with me for basically every meal. And although great, all I wanted was chicken jerky, tortillas, and peanut M&Ms. Now I still bring freeze dried meals, but I save those for dinner when I’m going to have more time to sit there, prepare and enjoy them.
Then I ran out of tortillas and was very sad. Very very sad. So now I know, bring more tortillas. So sit down and think about what are you really going to want to eat after hiking 15 miles.
And after a few days on the trail, a salad, an apple, a smoothie, or anything fresh sounds like the best thing imaginable. But sadly, that’s too much weight to bring backpacking.
3. CAMP NEAR WATER
Follow Leave No Trace Principles and don’t camp right next to a water source, but do camp within easy walking distance of one. This will help with making dinner, soaking your feet, doing laundry (but use soak away from the water source), and filling up water for the night and for the morning.
It sucks to run out of water in the middle of the night and not have enough in the morning for breakfast or the hike to the nearest water source. It’s honestly easier to take care of this at night instead of the morning.
I really can’t say this one enough. I’ve gotten altitude sickness too many times, and I’ve learned my lesson. Don’t come up from sea level and think you can hike to 14,505 feet without acclimating. That’s a big NO.
Know the symptoms and just take your time. Give your body a chance to acclimate to the altitude before you push further.
If you really don’t believe me, read my post about my experience with altitude sickness and what symptoms to watch out for.
5. ALWAYS BRING A MAP
So you know where you’re going, where the trail is and so you don’t get lost. Never leave on a backpacking trip without one. If you have a digital one on your phone or you’re using an InReach device, still bring a physical map.
6. FABRICS DO MATTER
Don’t wear cotton. Wear moisture wicking fabrics that will help keep you dry. And for thermals, get thermals that will actually keep you warm.
At home, it’s easy just to pile on sweaters and jackets, but since weight matters for backpacking, you don’t want to bring all of that with you. So do yourself a favor, get backpacking clothes (shirts, thermals, jackets, pants, etc.) that offer SPF protection, will keep you dry and jackets and layers that will keep you warm without the weight.
7. BE PREPARED FOR ALL WEATHER
One minute it’s sunny and the next it’s hailing on you in August. Yup, you heard me right.
Last year I hiked a portion of the Rae Lakes Loop in Kings Canyon. It was late July and very warm. The first day was hot, the next day it was raining on us and finally the third it started hailing. You never know what Mother Nature will throw at you, so it’s best to be prepared for everything.
8. IT’S OK TO CRY
I’ve cried on the trail more times than I can count. And no it’s not because I’m a baby.
Hiking is hard, backpacking is also hard. It really pushes your body to its physical and mental limits. Sometimes when your feet hurt, you’re still 4 miles from camp, and you’re wondering why you got yourself into this mess, it’s ok to just sit down and cry. Let that tension go. Afterward, you’ll feel much better and ready to handle those last 4 miles.
9. BRING MOLESKIN AND LOTS OF IT
You may get blisters or you may not. It’s better to be safe than sorry. You will want moleskin when you do get blisters
10. CAMP SHOES ARE PRETTY MUCH THE BEST THING YOU’LL WEAR ALL DAY
Pretty much nothing feels better than taking off your hiking boots at the end of a long day and throwing on your camp shoes so your feet can relax until you have to do it all again the next day.
It’s like when you come home from work and take off your shoes, and run around barefoot, in fuzzy socks or slippers, it just naturally helps you relax and be done with the day.
11. HAVE FUN
This is the most important lesson. You are in nature, you’re going to places only a few people get to see in their lives! You are pushing your body and mind to its limit and coming out stronger. So have fun and watch those stars at night. Summer of 2018 was the first year that I went backpacking. Before that it was mainly car camping (in the car or in a tent by the car) and long day hikes averaging over 15 miles per day.