If there’s one thing that can be guaranteed for your first backpacking trip, it’s that you’ll inevitably make at least one “mistake.” By the end of a first trip into the backcountry, we all usually leave with some new knowledge and thoughts on what we would do differently next time. Even our brand ambassadors, who have logged thousands of miles through the wilderness, had to start somewhere.

It’s near impossible to completely ace your first trip. In reality, you’ll likely keep picking up new tips and tricks on each trek you take. However, one way to mitigate risks and prepare the best you can is to learn from others’ mistakes. We asked our brand ambassadors to share their experiences from early backpacking trips and what their main takeaways were.

We hope these common first backpacking trip mistakes help as you plan your first outing. If you already have a few trips under your belt, we hope they give you a nice laugh as you remember your own newbie fails. And, if you know someone who is going on their first trip soon, we hope you’ll share these with them so they can learn from our past foils.

1. Choose Your Clothes Wisely

Many first-time backpackers think they’ll need more clothing than they actually do. It’s common for beginners to pack a change of clothes for every day they’re out. In reality, you’re going to be stinky no matter what, so it makes sense to wear your clothes more than once, which helps cut excess weight in your bag. 

For your hiking clothes, choose a synthetic fiber, which will still insulate when wet (unlike cotton), or merino wool, which has the added benefit of not absorbing as much stench. Have a set of hiking clothes that will get dirty and smelly along the way and then a clean base layer that you can change into at night. Read our guide on cold weather layering for hikers for more trail fashion tips.

“On my first ever backpacking trip in 2006, to Cumberland Island, Georgia, I packed new clothes for every day. And not just any clothes, I had a pair of jeans for the second day on my back. My pack was enormous and so heavy, making walking all day very tiresome.” – Steven “Twinkle” Shattuck

2. Leave the Full-Size Toiletries at Home

Every ounce adds up in your pack, and you’ll likely feel it when you’re trudging up a hill in the hot afternoon sun. There’s no need to carry a full-size deodorant stick, tube of toothpaste, hairbrush, or bottle of sunscreen. For the toiletries that you really think you’ll need on trail, get trail-sized versions or repackage items into smaller containers.

But it’s not just toiletries that get beginners. We’ve all seen a newbie (or have been that person!) who is carrying multiple books, Costco-sized bags of trail mix, multiple battery packs, cast iron skillets, or other superfluous and heavy items. As you pack for your first backpacking trip, just remember that everything you pack adds up. Do whatever you can to lighten your load while keeping what you need for safety and basic comfort.

“My first backpacking trip was a two-day, one-night quickie. For some reason, I was pretty insistent on needing two full hiking outfits: one for the first day and one for the second day! Yes, not just an extra bra and underwear, but an extra pair of hiking pants and an extra shirt. And this is on top of my sleeping base layers as well! I also distinctly remember bringing a full (large) tube of sunscreen, a full-size toothbrush, and a stick of deodorant. Let’s just say, I think the 3,000 feet of gain in 3 miles would have been slightly less exhausting if those unnecessary extras weren’t in the pack. Because let’s be real: I was still stinky even with new clothes and deodorant!” – Emily “Squishy” Schrick

3. Pick the Right Backpack

Speaking of weight, it’s also common to be sold on a backpack that, on its own, weighs far more than it needs to. Many beginner backpackers will visit a well-known outdoor store and ask to get fitted for a pack, only to leave with a model that weighs more than four pounds on its own and hosts many features that aren’t necessary for their trip. 

Wherever possible, ask backpacking friends for their recommendations on packs. See if you can try out a lightweight pack to reduce your load. A more comfortable backpack on your first trip might just sell you on the experience for the long run. Our Mariposa 60 Backpack is perfect for beginners, as it offers the comforts many of us crave while on trail, has enough space for gear as you continue to refine your kit, and still weighs less than two pounds.

“My mistake was honestly just using the wrong pack. I had a Gregory backpack (because that’s what was available to me at REI) that weighed too much just on its own, and a regular car camping sleeping bag that I secured to my pack on the outside—so, it threw off my center of gravity completely. It was my first big backpacking trip and I had no idea about ultralight backpacking or even the consideration to trim down on weight. After that trip, I learned more about lighter gear, and ways to lighten your pack. The pack itself weighed over 4 lbs without anything in it! Totally unnecessary. And that’s where I fell in love with Gossamer Gear packs—where every piece of material on the pack had a specific function and had been thoughtfully placed to minimize weight.” – Michelle Zhang

4. Test Your Gear Before Your Trip

Being in the wilderness overnight if you’ve never done it before can sometimes feel a little stressful. Putting in miles with a full pack on your back can also leave you feeling pretty tired by the end of the day. To minimize unnecessary frustration, test your gear before you find yourself tired at your campsite as the sun is setting.

Have you never set up a free-standing shelter before like The One or The Two? Don’t learn while on trail. Set it up in a park or your backyard beforehand to make sure you understand how and to work out any tweaks in your process. Have you never cooked on a camp stove before? Boil a few pots of water before you head out. Testing your gear before your trip will lower your stress levels, help you identify what you don’t actually need to take, and keep you safe on trail when you need to rely on your gear the most.

5. Break in Your Hiking Shoes Before Your Trip

Even if you try on a pair of trail shoes or hiking boots that feel comfortable in the store, that doesn’t mean they’re going to automatically be comfy on trail. Before you take your shoes on a grueling backcountry journey, test them out on a shorter day hike. See how they feel going uphill and downhill. Pay close attention to any pinch point or hot spots.

Some shoes need a little time to loosen up and break in to best fit your feet. By doing this before your first backpacking trip, you’ll avoid potential blisters and other foot aches that can ruin a trip fast.

6. Consider Where You Place Gear in Your Pack

How you load your gear into your backpack matters. You need to be able to distribute the weight evenly so your pack doesn’t feel off-kilter or dig into your back, shoulders, or hips. 

You’ll also want to consider how easily you’ll be able to access your gear during the day. You don’t want to have to take off your pack and unload everything each time you want a snack or need to grab your pee cloth. That gets old quickly for both you and your hiking buddies and can really slow your pace, giving you less time to set up at camp before sunset.

Put medium-weight items and things you don’t need quick access to at the bottom of your pack, such as your sleeping bag and sleeping clothes. Heavier items should go in the middle, like your cook kit and food. Lighter items and those you may need to access with ease while on trail should go on the top or in exterior pockets, such as your rain layer, first aid kit, and water filter.

“When packing for a backpacking trip, the order that you put things in your pack matters! You want to remember to put things like your phone, snacks, GPS, safety kit, and toilet paper closer to the top or outside of your pack so that you can have quick access to those things.” – Zwena Gray

7. Know the Ins and Outs of Pooping on Trail

If you’ve never pooped in the woods before, it’s worth doing a little reading beforehand to make sure you know how to do so in a responsible way. Following Leave No Trace principles ensures that we can all keep using our wild places with minimal impact. 

You’ll need to bring a lightweight trowel to dig a cat hole at least 200 feet away from any trail, campsite, or water source. You should also bring a waste bag and plan to pack out your toilet paper, as wilderness locations where it’s ok to bury your toilet paper are becoming increasingly rare with increased use. To reduce the amount of toilet paper you need, consider some toilet paper substitutes.

Your first trail poop might seem intimidating, but that doesn't mean you should hold it. Keeping regular while on trail is important for staying healthy.

“First backpacking trip mistake: forgetting to pack toilet paper! Pooping in the woods for the first time is one of the most scary things, but DO NOT HOLD IT IN! Find a pretty spot and pop a squat so that you can have an easeful rest of your backpacking journey. Remember to carry out any items that can’t be buried.” – Zwena Gray

8. Stay Safe and Found

Don’t worry about “over-preparing” for your first backpacking trip. Skipping important planning tasks can lead to trouble on trail, especially when you’re still a novice. Plan for the unexpected by following a few basic steps:

  • Always leave your plans with someone off trail, including when they should expect to hear from you again
  • Stick to your plans and stay on trail
  • Bring a means for emergency communication, such as an inReach mini
  • Go with someone who is a more seasoned backpacker on your first trip
  • Carry the ten essentials
  • Check the weather forecast for each day you’re out, including a couple days before and after, as well as what time sunrise and sunset will be

“I was very excited about hiking in the Dolomites, fresh from humid South Carolina. Armed with naive confidence, I ignored the moodiness of mountain weather. As the skies grumbled and rain began, I donned just my raincoat, thinking to myself, ‘What’s a little rain? It’ll just add character to the hike, right?’ But within 20 minutes, Mother Nature dramatically flipped the script, plunging me into a full-blown blizzard. There I was, standing in my raincoat, now an iced-over hiker. Things worked out in the end, but the experience highlighted two crucial lessons: 1) the importance of always being responsive for unexpected weather plot twists—and the recognition that waterproof pants should not just be packed, but worn, and 2) the value of well-marked blazes on unfamiliar trails became very clear, guiding me through the sudden whiteout.” – Rochelle “Ruby” Altman

Learn From First Backpacking Trip Mistakes for a Better Hike

We all make mistakes on our first backpacking trips. Those missteps are how we learn and grow and become better hikers. But it’s also important to share our stories with others so we can collectively expand our knowledge too.

We hope these tips and the reflections from our brand ambassadors can help you prepare for your own first backpacking trip 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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February 16, 2024 — Korrin Bishop