14 things I wish I’d known before my first backpacking trip

My first-ever backpacking trip was to Havasu Falls, Arizona, a three-day, two-night trip. I was invited less than a week before the trip, had zero gear, and had only ever hiked 8 (miserable) miles in a day. I gathered all my gear from REI rentals and Amazon and ended up with a pack that I struggled to lift onto my back. I had no idea how to secure a backpacking packs, so on the mile down the canyon the pack swayed side to side and repeatedly pushed my pants down. I slipped and fell three times or so, and I moved about as slowly as someone could without reversing back up the mountain. I arrived to camp two hours later than everyone else in my group. At camp, I gave away a bunch of extras – a fuel canister, books – to my group so that I wouldn’t have to carry them out.

On the way OUT of the canyon, the sandy uphill that comes directly out of camp ruined my morale (I’d woken up early to get a head start) and I stood in line for two hours to take the tourist helicopter out ($80 fee) before learning that I’d have to wait for another four hours. I furiously called my husband, had him drive four hours to meet me (knowing my group would have left by then) and hiked my way out of the canyon on pure self-hatred alone. I had eight blisters on my feet when I reached the top.

Here are a few things I wish I’d known.


1. Your pack is (mostly) as heavy as you make it

Ounces add up to pounds. Step on your home scale without your pack, and then with your pack. Decide if all that “just in case” stuff is necessary.

2. Somebody else will likely have packed all that “just in case” stuff

Borrow it if you need it, which you probably won’t.

3. That 2lb sleeping pad you brought slept on for two nights that just seems like a useless flat piece of plastic? 

It’s inflatable.

4. Your hands will swell while hiking/backpacking

You’re not gonna die.

5. If your shoes give you blisters, any at all, return them

Finding the perfect hiking shoe is an adventure all of it’s own.

6. You’re a slow-average hiker

Your pace is pretty much your pace, and there’s not much you can do about it. Luckily, this is not a race, so stop comparing yourself to everyone else.

7. Don’t sit down or take off your pack when you need a breather.

Save these moments for when you’re going to stop and eat lunch, or need to take care of your feet. Actually, someone probably did tell you this, and you probably cursed at them. They were right.

8. Tighten all of the straps on your pack.

This helps make your pack into one solid mass, which you can then do your best to secure to your back so that it 1) doesn’t wobble and throw you off balance and 2) transfers the weight more effectively to your hips.

9. Snaaaaacks.

Eat them regularly and as you walk. Don’t “wait for another 10 minutes” or “’til you get to X miles.” Eat and drink when you’re hungry. The delay between energy dip and energy crash is shorter than you think.

10. Don’t pack “healthy” food.

Remember that time you packed celery and carrots and cucumbers for a day hike? And the whole universe laughed at you? Bring easy fats and carbs, friend. Fats and carbs.

11. Fit as much as you can IN your pack, not on it

This will help keep the weight in your hips, which do not lie.

12. You don’t have to put your tent poles inside your pack

You can put them in a side pocket, strap them on top, etc. Just make sure they’re secure..

13. Context matters

If you’re having a hell of a time, ask yourself: Why? Maybe you’re walking uphill in sand for two miles, and it’s not that you suck, the trail does. Maybe you didn’t have enough for breakfast. Maybe you’re carrying 5 liters of water. Remind yourself that the suckiness doesn’t last forever – both your mental state and the terrain are subject to change. Then keep going.

14. You will be okay (probably)

Common sense and paying attention go a remarkably long way. Don’t let fear of the unknown keep you from trying something new.

Here’s a photo of my pack on the first trip I took to Havasu Falls compared to my pack 18 months later on the same trip.


**Admittedly, being able to evaluate and purchase your own gear helps a whole lot – REI doesn’t have a particularly great light-weight selection for rental (or it didn’t at the time. Not that I would have known to ask.)


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