5 Common Gear & Common Mistakes New Backpackers Make

5 Common Gear & Common Mistakes New Backpackers Make

Author: Tina Eckerlin

Let's be clear from the start, there is no right or wrong way to enjoy your adventures. Ultimately, you need to do your own thing. However, there are ways to make your trips more enjoyable.

You have probably heard about light weight and ultralight backpacking. This is a philosophy and a process, that gives credence to the bottom line; that the lower your base weight the further you can hike. This means less strain and stress on your body.

Base Weight: is the total weight of your gear, minus food, fuel and water.

The lightweight or ultralight backpacking approach is not about being in survival mode all Rambo-like or being unsafe. It is about refining your gear for functionality, simplicity, weight and durability and most of all what that gear brings to your experience.

You can carry an ultralight pack without skipping out on comfort or essential items. Check out this article about 10 Essential Items.

1. Food

Over or underestimating food and calorie requirements is probably the most common mistake new hikers make while packing. It can be difficult to estimate how much food to bring.

Food is heavy and bulky. Even freeze-dried or dehydrated meals add up in weight. 

Many pack two weeks worth of food for a two night trip, while others don't pack enough not realizing that they will be burning through a lot more calories than expected.

Calorie requirements will vary depending on the difficulty and length of the terrain, pack weight, gender and weather. If it is -10 °C and you are hiking for 30 km to summit a 3500 foot mountain, you will need a lot more calories than a +10 °C flat hike over 10 km.

The general rule that backpackers use is roughly 1.5 to 2 pounds of food per day. Ideally, you want to have 20-25 calories per pound of body weight. 

Higher calorie and higher density foods can translate into less weight per calorie. Try to choose food with a higher fat, protein and carbohydrate index to fuel your adventures. Try to make those calories count for the pounds you are carrying.

Plan out your meals, snacks and an extra day worth of food. Don't forget to measure your portions. There is nothing worse than hiking out wet food that you didn't finish.

Your meal prep should look something like: breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, supper, snack...

Try to get out for a night or two before a longer hike so you have an idea of what food portions worked for you. Don't forget that the longer your trip is, the hungrier you will get as days go on. Pack food that you like! If you don't like lentils, then don't pack lentils!

2. Overpacking Clothing

We have all seen it, the hiker who has three changes of clothes per day! Think utility and purpose. Don't worry about being smelly, it is part of backpacking!

When it comes to your clothing, simplicity is best. Choose lighter weight and technical fabrics that are quick drying.

Hiking clothes
  • One set of hiking clothing you will hike in, yes...the same clothes every  a day, such as a pair of shorts or pants, and a shirt
  • 2 pairs of underwear, wash and rotate each day on the trail
  • 2 pairs of socks, wash and rotate each day on the trail
  • A thermal layer like leggings and a down puffy or fleece. These can double as sleep clothes
  • Rain gear, it can also act as a wind breaking and an extra layer

Try to think about how items can be multipurposed. One of my favorite items is a tube bandana. They can be a mask, sweatband, headband, hat, balaclava, pot holder, face cloth....

3. Choosing the Wrong Footwear

Too often I see hikers trudging around in heavy leather hiking boots. Most rookies assume that they need clunky supportive boots to hike. To be fair, hiking boots still have their place, especially in mountaineering and in harsher climates, but for most, trail runners are a great three-season solution. The problem we see is that most hiking boots take a long time to dry and they are heavy. 

There is an old hiker saying that one pound on your feet equals five pounds on your back. From experience I know this to be true, but in 1984 a study was done by the U.S. Army Research Institute and proved the validity of this statement.

Most people don't need that kind of support, especially if you have lessened your pack weight.

When trying to decide between trail runners and hiking boots some things to consider are:

  • Less weight means more energy
  • Trail runners dry faster and are more breathable, but are not as warm
  • Trail runners have little to no break-in time, meaning generally less blisters
  • Hiking boots have better ankle support and will last longer, but has a rigid sole that do not feel the ground
  • A range of soles are available on both

Most importantly, if you are wearing hiking boots, make sure that you have 'broken' them in before heading out onto the trail! 

4. Ditch the Stuff Sacs!

Stuff sacs have their place. However, choose how you store and organize your gear carefully!

Many new hikers keep each item in their original stuff sac bags. Think about a single pack liner, a couple of sacs like compression bag for clothes and sleeping bag, and a ditty bag for loose items like hygiene and electronics.

The weight of your sleeping bag sac, air mattress sac, pot sac, mosquito netting sac, toiletries sac, electronics sac, sit pad sac, spoon sac, clothes sac, puffy sac, rain coat sac, rain pants sac, pillow sac...all add up to unneeded weight!

Your rain gear does not need to be in a sac -keep it on the outside of your pack, you will be putting it on if it rains anyways. 

By ditching the excess bags you can likely drop your base weight by a few pounds!

5. Overestimating Your Gear

How often have you purchased something because it looked cool or was on sale? Yeah, it is ok - we've all done it.

There is a lot of gear on the market. The problem is that not all gear is right for you. 

When choosing gear look at the weight, durability and the specific function. Items with lots of bells and whistles tend to have lots of bells and whistles to fail in the backcountry. Think about: can you fix it if it fails? Will I be safe if it doesn't work?

Have you ever spent a small fortune on the latest rain jacket only to find out it wets through after 10 minutes? Or picked up a $20 air mattress only to have it be flat by morning?

Consider and research your gear. Then test it out!

For instance, I have seen so many novice hikers purchase an expensive -25 °C sleeping bag, but use a thin 1/8th inch foam mat and be cold all night at +15°C. Or the reverse, when hikers pick up a hardware store discounted bag with no thought of the warmth rating at all!

They then claim that the gear is no good or failed, but the 'R' value of your sleeping pad and your sleeping bag needs to work in unison. Researching and testing your gear is the best way to make sure it works for you.

Like most things in life, researching, learning and trials are the best way to help you avoid these mistakes.

Set your gear up in your backyard and campout for the night. Hit the trail for a day hike and see what needs to be switched out before heading into the backcountry. It could mean the difference between a great trip, a miserable trip and potentially needing search and rescue.

Author Tina Eckerlin is a hiker, owner and a maker at Terrain UL.

What are some rookie hiking mistakes you made?

Let us know in the comments below!

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