10 Essentials for Beginning Backpackers
“The beginning is always the hardest” – everyone has heard that and although most people agree that it’s true, the majority of us give up before even starting. There are so many reasons for doing this. Don’t forget what you hear so often - “humans are rational”. Well, that’s not really true. What’s true is that we always try to provide some rationale behind our actions believing that it fully justifies them; however, some 40 years ago the famous psychologists Kahneman and Tversky discovered that humans systematically make choices that defy clear logic because of something they called “cognitive biases”. Even experienced researchers are prone to the same cognitive biases when they rely on intuitive judgments in more intricate and less transparent problems. Apparently, we assume that we are rational but clearly, our thoughts, desires, and actions often aren’t.
Someone would now say “Yes, you might be correct, but that has nothing to do with hiking and beginning backpackers”. Well, actually it has a lot to do with beginning backpackers because they lack the experience of veteran hikers and are prone to the same mistakes typical for so many novice backpackers (needless to say, even some seasoned hikers underestimate dangers and make careless mistakes). However, with some simple research, reading, and asking most costly mistakes (especially those concerning hiking clothing and gear) can be easily avoided without having to take instinctive decisions when you get yourself in trouble.
Basics for beginning hikers
There are some basics necessary to follow for having a safe hiking experience which will be fun to do and fun to talk about later. Let’s start from #1:
Start with rather flat, level walks of about 5-6 km (3-4 miles), preferably in a forested or scenic area. For those kinds of hikes, you don't need special hiking shoes. Also, unless hiking in the desert or at high altitude, you will not need to carry water or food. That way you can decide if it is something you like to do. From there, you can take on longer hikes and/or hikes that gain significant elevation. For those hikes, you will need hydration (water bottle), better hiking footwear (lightweight hiking shoes or heavy-duty backpacking boots), and some food (like a granola bar or gorp).
If you start simple, then it isn't so complex. As you advance into longer and tougher hikes, you will find more planning, preparation, and gear are needed.
Choose easy trails
Continue with easier and not too long trails – somewhere between 50 and 150 km is probably optimal. Additionally, it’s better if you choose a more popular trail since there’s a better chance for you to meet people if you need help at some point.
As a beginning backpacker, there are still many opportunities to go off the radar without putting yourself in a dangerous situation. There are extremely well-maintained trails that go for miles. A good idea is to scout online at places with built-in landmarks, for example, an area with lakes. If you want to go off trail, lakes are great because they are built in landmarks. As long as you’re by the lake, you’re close to the trail that got you there.
Go with a friend/group
You know best whether you’d like to enjoy laughter and companionship on the trail or prefer solo hikes. However, it’s always better for beginning backpackers to join a group if not for the social side and for having more fun, just in case.
Have a plan, and a backup plan, and an emergency plan
Plan ahead your hiking adventure. Choose your terrain wisely – you can do it easily online. Before venturing into an unfamiliar territory or season, research the conditions so that you can make informed choices that will maximize your comfort and safety. Get as much information as possible - consult climate databases, topographical maps, satellite images, print and online guidebooks, forums, and trip reports. Get reliable weather report for your area and check it carefully before you leave. Weather can make the difference between going for a casual stroll and... Well, dying. Sounds dramatic, but the weather has that kind of power. Learn about precautions for weather, conditions, and terrain in your particular area. There are always details and dangers that are specific to the environment you will be hiking in. Carry a map, a compass, and consider canyons or rivers: they’ll keep you from getting lost. Be prepared to start a fire, bandage a cut, wrap an ankle, and signal for help.
Select the right hiking shoes
That's really the one thing that isn't negotiable. Good, sturdy, comfy, light, breathable, and stable hiking footwear that fits your foot. Remember, though, that a kilo on your feet is five to six on your back in terms of energy needs, so really don't go with the heaviest ones you can find. Whether specific hiking shoes or boots are necessary depends on your personal preferences, weather conditions, the distance of the trail, and the terrain you will be negotiating. If you are hiking on steep, rocky terrain, durable and comfortable hiking boots (that have been broken in prior to your hike) will provide support and increase your safety. See our post about footwear for more information about the different types and features of hiking shoes.
Limit the amount of “off-trail” hiking
If you are a true beginner, you might want to limit the amount of “off-trail” hiking you do for the sole reason of not getting disoriented and lost. Better if you restrain from going down side trails. However, if you do that deliberately or not deliberately, do the following: first, use sticks to mark previous locations on the trail. You may want to break them in half and make little symbols for the direction of travel. Second, bring a compass with you to try and stay oriented. These steps might save you some more trouble. If you get lost - climb up the hills for a better vantage point to look around. Try to come back down the hill to find the end of the trail you followed before. If you still cannot find your trail, try to traverse higher hill to get a better viewing angle. Once you find your trail and start locating the marks you made, the marks will make all the difference because they will show you how to make your way back to the main trail.
Make sure you stay on the trail. Even by leaving your trail for just a moment, you may end up very lost and put yourself in a dangerous situation.
Know yourself and keep improving
Stay mindful and aware of your physical capabilities and think carefully about risk versus enjoyment. Knowing and being true to yourself is extremely important when in the outdoors.
Being an outdoors lover can be very rewarding: you get to breathe deep into fresh air, connect with your body, or overcome your fears — but dire mistakes can make your life miserable. While knowing oneself is huge — it is also important to keep improving. How can you do that? Just follow this simple cycle: 1) gain knowledge; 2) apply it; 3) get comfortable on, and 4) repeat.
Examples of useful knowledge and actions: ask other hikers for advice on the trail even if you don’t know them; make sure you carry bear spray if you pass through bear territory; carry the right amount of food and water; know how long you’ll be away from civilization and plan ahead based on three meals a day + snack, plan out how many days you’ll be away from a source of food/water and calculate exactly how much you will need; get a versatile multi-tool – it can literally save your life in the wilderness; pace yourself - burning out can get you in trouble if you don’t reach a certain location in your plan; avoid blisters; take off layers of clothing if overheating in cold weather - taking off layers will protect you from freezing if you can't get dry; acclimate when climbing high altitudes; always leave a place the way you found it; light a fire in all weather conditions.
First aid kit, bring duct tape
When building a first aid kit, there are many variables that must be considered in order to adequately cover emergency contingencies while on the trail. Retail kits are often a good start, but every first aid kit should be individualized based upon a number of factors. We recommend the use of durable and waterproof containers and small plastic sealable bags for storage in first aid kits. An outer container made of durable nylon is optimal and protects contents. Among the essentials in your first aid kit, you should include some analgesics/antibiotics/anaphylaxis (Ibuprofen, Acetaminophen, Sting relief pad etc.), bandages, antiseptic towelettes, blister care pads, 2"x2" and 3"x3" gauze sponges, emergency/safety whistle, and 6mm cord.
You can use duct tape to waterproof ventilated boots, fix a cracked water bottle, and protect painful blisters. For more ingenious ways of using duct tape on the trail check this awesome post here.
Stay hydrated, bring sun cream
Water is absolutely essential on hikes, especially if there’s elevation, a lot of mileage, and a warm sunny day. And if you sweat a lot, you’ll need more water than you think. The actual amount of water needed for a hike depends on the person. Some people need a lot of water; others need very little so long as they hydrate enough the day before. Springs and creeks are marked on topographical maps. Before relying on a water source marked on a map, check guidebooks and online trip reports for past observations or consult someone who has personal familiarity with the landscape.
Keep in mind that you may get scorched if you underestimate the sun. A good hat, sunglasses, sunscreen with UPF, and your clothes will protect you from sunburn.
Get a whistle, flashlight/headlamp, and a pair of good trekking poles
We've already mentioned safety whistle as an essential part of your first aid kit. We mention it here again because it's really important having one at hand. If you become lost or injured the sound of a whistle will carry much farther than your voice. Three consecutive blasts indicate distress.
In the event, you are on the trail longer than expected and the sun sets before you reach your destination you will need a reliable source of light.
Made to mitigate the impact of long trails on your muscles, joints, and ligaments, hiking sticks are most useful when hiking in mountainous terrain or when carrying a heavy pack. Most serious hikers consider trekking poles a critical piece of equipment.
Experience is the best teacher. This is true with everything, but it is very true with hiking. Some people despite all the hiking wisdom they have been given, never truly learn from it until they experience it the hard way. So plan your trip, go with a friend, get a pair of good hiking shoes or boots that fit well, choose easy trails, and follow these 10 essentials if you don't want to become part of the growing group of beginning hikers who have made costly mistakes on the trail.