What If You Were a Beginner Backpacker?

Last weekend, several experienced backpackers from my club gathered together to discuss the agenda for the upcoming backpacking workshop in the spring. We fill up the one-day workshop with lecture-type sessions and hands-on practices. Lecture-type sessions cover topics which include gear introduction, map and navigation, personal hygiene, “leave no trace,” and cooking & nutrition. Hands-on sessions let participants have a chance to practice setting up a tent, lighting up a stove, treating water, and hanging a bear bag.

Our target participants are beginner backpackers, so we assume that they know nothing or little about backpacking and they’ve never taken part in any backpacking trip before. I really hope that this workshop will prepare them well so that they have a very good first impression of backpacking and will continue coming back to the trails. Therefore, I’ve put a lot of thought on how I could have done better to make my first few trips more pleasant so that they will not have to repeat my mistakes:

1. Progress gradually

Backpacking requires physical strength: the fitter you are, the more enjoyable the trip will be. It’s nice to push yourself a little bit harder, but it’s even nicer to know where your limit is. If you have doubts, participate in an easier trip.

Before I participated in my first backpacking trip, I had been working out very regularly: basically running for at least 30 minute every other day and swimming laps occasionally. And then I jumped in carrying my backcountry home for 10 miles a day. I tried my very best to minimize my pack weight, for example, instead of carrying a stove and cooking ware, I made four peanut butter sandwiches as my weekend food supply (Look! I even left jelly at home to achieve the spirit of minimalism.) However, the gap between load and no-load was noticeable.

The second trip was a huge upgrade: It was a 4-day trip, which had longer distance per day and more drastic elevation change to cover. The group had four people and I was forced to be the sweeper. The first day, I finished my last 2 miles alone, crying in the dark.

The third trip was a weekend trip covering the whole Devil’s Path. The trail was a bit icy and we had to climb four peaks the first day. Another participant took my pack the last half mile going to the camp site, and I dropped out the second day.

Looking back, those memorable trips do not look difficult or miserable anymore. I am confident that I will finish them smoothly given my current ability, but back then, before I signed up, I didn’t have any idea whether I was capable doing them or not. I was lucky that I only ended up with some tears and blisters and I had nice leaders and teammates who kept my spirit up. However, given that I was always exhausted before we hit the camp site, things might have been worse if any accident had happened.

Before you sign up for a trip, evaluate yourself honestly. Discuss any concern thoroughly with your leader. If you have doubts, go for an easier trip.

2. Buy a pair of good boots

I can’t emphasize more on how important selecting a good pair of boots is. Everyday you walk 6-10 hours on dirt, rocks, roots and you ascend, descend, and cross rivers on foot. Boots are your best friends. You can borrow or rent every other item on the gear list, but you have to have your own boots.

I had more than enough experience on dealing with blisters and to tell the truth it was quite unpleasant. Blisters are trip killers, and they can be prevented by a good combination of socks and boots.

For the workshop, boots/socks selection and blister prevention is one of the topics I am responsible for. Once I finish the lecture notes, I’ll put them up here too.

3. Keep things dry

Dry clothes help you to regulate your body temperature; dry socks keep you away from blisters; and a dry sleeping bag gives you a good night sleep. Try your best to keep things dry: use a pack cover, prepare rain gear, and waterproof the stuff sacks of your sleeping bag and additional clothes.

I still remember the pouring rain the first time I backpacked. My pack cover was a heavy-duty trash bag and the rain seemed heavier. I hadn’t invested in lightweight rain gear and my ski shells overheated me. I tried my best to set up the tent but the floor was still damp.

Everything was wet, except for my sleeping bag. I hope I can describe how much I appreciated it: a dry sleeping bag made my trip. Ever since then, I have never forgotten to over-protect my sleeping bag and I’ve never left my rain gear behind.

4. Treat yourself nicely

Once you are on a trip, don’t blame yourself for any mistakes you have made. It is fine to think “I wish I could have done something,” and it certainly will help you grow from your experience, but please do it after you finish the trip.

Of the second trip and the third trip I mentioned above, I was the slowest. I kept thinking that I was a burden of the group and I pushed myself very hard to catch the pace of other people. Forcing me to chase other people messed up my own pace, and I ended up more tired than I should have been. The leader of my second trip noticed what I was doing and starting from the second day, he kept reminding me to “hike my own hike” and he promised me that he would always be behind my back. That “hike my own hike” principle made the remaining trip much easier.

At the camp site of my third trip, I expressed my thoughts to my teammates that I felt that I was a burden of the group. Another participant said to me, “You are tough, you didn’t complain at all.” Other teammates encouraged me and requested me to keep backpacking.

Mental strength is as important as physical strength in the backcountry. After all, being with nature and understanding teammates is fun, why do we punish ourselves for something we cannot change at that moment?

Different people have different first-time backpacking tales to tell. If you were a beginner backpacker, what is that you wish you had known better?

Ps. Coming soon, the Chinese version!

10 thoughts on “What If You Were a Beginner Backpacker?”

  1. These days beginning backpackers can be assaulted by many different schools of thought. Renting or borrowing gear before you buy your own is good idea, and base your purchases on what works for you, not what people tell you! There are many many styles of backpacking – find one that you like and most important, that works for you.

  2. everytime I shared one of your outdoor trips, I began to wonder if you really have a job or not. (smile)
    To me, some of the activities sounded like they need months or even years of preperation.

    I guess these are the envyous words from a lasy housewife just like me…

  3. cyberhobo,
    I, too, suggest beginners to borrow or rent gear for their first few trips. And indeed right now there are so many styles of backpacking and it can be very confusing. For example, ultralight is a hot topic nowadays, however, I haven’t walk towards that direction yet.

    I do have to work, although I do put a lot of efforts on outdoor stuff. If I don’t have to worry about money, I will blog everyday and go out more often!!

  4. I have no experience be a backpacker, I like “It’s nice to push yourself a little bit harder”, just like biking on a steep slope, It feel wonderful when conquer the highest top. I wish someday I could become a backpacker and go to here : http://3310.frogfree.com/ .It’s so beautiful.

  5. My first back pack was in Boy Scouts. I was 11 years old. I had a canvas pack with no frame. Used to be called a Deluth sack, that my uncle used as a scout about 25 years before me. I had it stuffed with cotton clothes and a big camp sleeping bag strapped to the bottom. We hiked for about a mile in the dark and my back was killing me.
    Now it’s a different story. In 40 years I’ve learned a lot and I’m still learning. For the beginner I would recommend to start slow. Camp in your back yard overnight to learn how to set up your tent and sleeping gear. Does the ground cloth go UNDER the tent or in it? I don’t know how many times I’ve seen those blue tarps under a tent with about a foot(or more!) extra sticking out all around the tent to collect rain and funnel it into the tent :- ( If things don’t go well in your back yard, you just go inside. Plus, it makes the neighbors talk. :- )
    After camp “Subdivision”, I’d start off with just an overnighter. Again, somewhere close to home. Maybe a State camp ground. See how minimuly you can go. When you’re ready to head for the wilds, go with an experienced group. Make sure your expectations and goals are clear to everyone. As Littel Po (I call her Ting-Ting) says, the group is there to support you. And they will. You’ll be helping them too, more than you know.

  6. Hat,
    yes, I’ve heard about that website. The mountains in Taiwan are just beautiful. Right now I’m working on becoming a major excursion leader of my club, so that I can lead international trips to introduce the beauty of my home country to my foreign friends.

    I’m so happy that you’re here. Ting-Ting has a longer history than LittlePo, however, when I registered my domain, tingting.com was already taken.

    Your comments are really useful, I like “it makes the neighbors talk.” 🙂 And as what you pointed out regarding the group dynamics, I can’t agree with you more. And that reminds me those 4 days we spent together in the Whites. Quite a trip!!

  7. Po: Thanks a lot for visiting my web. 🙂 I’ve been here very often to read again and again several of your articles, in hope I can be as fitted as you are someday! Haha, i know, reading won’t make me improve my physical condition, but it does encourage me a lot to practice more.
    I really like your “It’s nice to push yourself a little bit harder, it’s even nicer to know where your limit is. ” Though I can’t really walk fast and am not experienced at all, I do plan to take some easier backpacking trip this year. The love of hike and nature should make me enjoy all the trips I take.

  8. Hi nachtluft,
    To me, it’s really an accomplish to hear that people like to visit my site and get some useful information from here.

    Walking fast is not a requirement for outdoor activities, and every person has his/her own pace. And the ultimate goal to get out to the woods is to enjoy ourselves, isn’t it? Let me know how you feel after you participate in any backpacking trips!!

  9. Pingback: Final Frontier: An Outdoor Blog » Blog Archive » Event Announcement: Beginner Backpacking Workshop – April 22, 2006

  10. Pingback: Final Frontier: An Outdoor Blog » Blog Archive » Days in Alaska – NOLS Mountaineering Course Journal (Preface and Acknowledgement)在阿拉斯加的日子 – NOLS Mountaineering 課程經æ

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