It’s hard to not have something go a little awry when planning your first multi-week or multi-month backpacking trip. Going on your first thru-hike involves many details, from route planning to selecting the best camera. Similar to how you’ll likely make a mistake or two on your first backpacking trip, you’ll probably experience some mishaps on your first thru-hike. The key is to learn how to use those mistakes to improve your future trips—as well as to get more comfortable along the way on your thru-hike.

We asked our team of brand ambassadors to share their biggest “whoopsies” from their first thru-hikes with us. Our hope is that as you plan your own, their stories below will help you avoid these common pitfalls. And if you’ve already been on your first thru-hike, we hope you can see yourself a little in their tales and get a good laugh or two as you reminisce. 

Whether taking on the full Pacific Crest Trail or Appalachian Trail or embarking on a shorter thru-hike, learning beginner thru-hiker trail hacks and anticipating where you might trip up can help you prepare for a successful trek.

1. Be Careful With Shipping Your Re-Supply Boxes

You may choose to ship additional food or supplies to different towns along your route. This helps reduce unnecessary pack weight. For example, if you won’t need a bulkier layer for keeping warm until later in the season, you can plan to have that piece of gear shipped to a location farther north on your hike. Or, if you want to avoid relying solely on the food options available in trail towns, you can ship homemade concoctions or favorite treats to your resupply stops.

However, before relying on this option, make sure to double-check where you’re sending your packages. Ensure you have the right address, know what times that location is open for pickups, and double check that they accept shipments in the first place, as not all businesses will. Have access to a tracking number for your shipment whenever possible. It’s never fun to arrive in town and find that your package took a different route.

Before starting my Colorado Trail (CT) thru-hike, I mailed a resupply package with food and warmer clothing through the U.S. Postal Service to a hostel in Breckenridge. I felt smug mailing my food since it meant I'd get to enjoy my homemade dehydrated meals while avoiding tourist town prices for ramen bombs. I also loved hiking through the CT's warmer, lower elevation segment without the added weight of the extra layers I'd need after Breckenridge. Turns out, I overlooked information on the hostel’s website indicating that USPS wouldn’t deliver packages to them, despite the two buildings being only a few blocks from one another. My package was returned to my home, and I was left scrambling for warmer clothes in an expensive resort town. Thankfully, I overestimated what I’d eat on the first segment of the CT, and I nearly had enough leftover food for the next segment. Lessons learned: Check for carrier guidelines at hostels who accept resupply packages and consider only sending a portion of your food resupply needs, especially early in a thru-hike when your ‘hiker hunger’ hasn’t kicked in yet. – Nancy East

2. Check Current Trail Conditions Before Heading Out

Bear activity. Wildfires. Blowdowns. Many conditions can affect trails, and some can become safety concerns if you don’t know about them. It’s never fun to hike 20+ miles in a day only to find that the campsite you planned to stay at got closed for aggressive bear activity or that the water source you were relying on has gone dry.

While you can’t plan for conditions months ahead of when you’ll arrive somewhere, chat with other hikers along the way about what they’ve heard and check at each trail town stop for information on what the next section looks like before heading back out.

3. Plan to Reassess Gear Needs as You Go

As you head out on your first thru-hike, it’s likely that you’ll notice some gear you wish you had with you or some that you wish you’d left at home. Sometimes in the pursuit of going ultralight, first-time thru-hikers leave behind items like gloves or other small comfort items that they end up wanting along the way. Do your best to anticipate what you’ll really need by going on shorter trips beforehand, but also plan to reassess your gear kit as you go.

Since things can change along the trail, it’s best to avoid buying doubles of certain items, as you may find that you want to swap something out for a version with different features—or even that the size you started the trail wearing isn’t the one you end up fitting in later down the path.

Prior to hiking the PCT in 2014, I purchased four pairs of Brooks Cascadias in my normal size, 10.5. In the first two weeks, my feet swelled and flattened in the desert and never went back down below 11.5. I couldn't use any of the shoes I spent a lot of money pre-purchasing. That was a costly mistake! – Steven “Twinkle” Shattuck

4. Set Reasonable Expectations for Mileage

As you get used to the trail and the pace of a thru-hike, you’ll likely be able to increase your mileage to some pretty beastly days. However, many first-time thru-hikers overestimate their daily mileage capabilities for the first week. This can lead to exhaustion, injuries, and lower morale. Plus, that first week is a time where you’ll likely be orienting to your pack and fine-tuning your processes, which can slow you down.

Plan to ease into your first couple weeks of thru-hiking. Set your expectations low. If you exceed them, great! But keeping them within reach will maintain focus on your goal and help build your thru-hiking stamina. Also keep in mind daily obstacles like terrain and elevation changes. Go gently into your first thru-hike to ensure you make it to the end.

5. Remember to Look Both Ways

Yes, thru-hikes typically travel one trail in one direction, such as south to north, but it’s nevertheless fairly common to make a wrong turn! After snack or lunch breaks, when packing up camp, or otherwise getting moving again, look both ways and ensure that you’re heading north if you mean to be heading north or south if you mean to be heading south. It’s never fun to realize while hiking that you just lost a few miles of progress going in the wrong direction!

When I was doing my thru-hike of the Bruce Trail, we saw a fellow thru-hiker during our first week on the hike. A couple weeks later, we saw him and we were going opposite directions. I asked him whether he was southbound or northbound, and he responded that he was going northbound. I, too, was a northbound thru-hiker, so how were we going opposite directions? After checking the map, I realized that I had been walking for a mile in the wrong direction! – Zwena Gray

6. Keep an Eye on Your Gear

When you’re planning to be in the wilderness for weeks on end and survive on just what you can carry on your back, you come to rely on the gear you have. A common thru-hiker mistake is to not do the “second look” when packing up camp or after stopping along the trail for a snack break. Thru-hikers have left rain jackets hanging on trees, trekking poles leaned up against trail signs, or bandanas forgotten in shelters. Make it a habit to look around a couple times for anything you may be missing before you start moving again.

Additionally, when at camp or other stops, keep your gear organized and secure. From curious rodents to sudden gusts of wind, you may find important gear carried away if you don’t keep track of it.

I was camped in a remote site in Los Padres National Forest. My One tent was set up with the entrance facing away from me. I was tending a fire when suddenly a fox came out of the bushes and ran in front of the tent, out of my sight. It suddenly reappeared carrying my pants and headed down the trail. I immediately jumped up, yelling repeatedly at the top of my voice, ‘Drop my pants! Drop my pants!’ Fortunately, it dropped my pants. This was a stroke of luck because my car keys were in the pants’ pocket. As I was packing up the next day, I noticed that one of my gloves and underwear were missing. I never found the gloves, but a year later, I found the underwear in a bush along the same trail. My lesson is don’t leave gear in an open vestibule or a sly fox might take them! – Paul “The Beeman” Cronshaw

Learn From Others’ Mistakes to Improve Your First Thru-Hike

You’re going to make some sort of “mistake” on your first thru-hike. When you do, make sure to share it with fellow hikers and aspiring thru-hikers, as that’s how we all learn how to become better backpackers and plan smoother trips.

We hope these tips and the reflections from our brand ambassadors can help you prepare for your first thru-hike or inspire one of your friends to go on theirs. We’d also love to hear about your first trips, both tremendous triumphs and epic fails! Share the fun with us by tagging Gossamer Gear on social media (@gossamergear) and using the hashtag #takelessdomore.

Hungry for more backpacking gear and planning knowledge? Check out some of our other articles on the Light Feet blog:

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March 13, 2024 — Korrin Bishop