Lessons learned from a first-time backpacker: You can't know unless you go

Things I wish that I would have known before my first backpacking trip, learn from my mistakes!

The Backdrop

As a student studying Wildlife & Fisheries Biology that lives 45 minutes from Southern Appalachia, I tend to spend my free hours outdoors. Fly fishing, mountain biking, camping and hiking fill my frivolous hours spent away from books and tedious studies. However, I had never taken the time to really submerse myself in wilderness for more than 24 hours. As a senior who still has the schedule of a student and not a full-time working professional, I realized my time to really engage with my surroundings and go on an epic backpacking adventure, was sooner, as opposed to later. Winter then, I began to plan my spring break around a backpacking trip that would challenge myself, and that would be very self-fulfilling. The only question: what college student in their right mind would give up their beach beers in Cancun to accompany me for this adventure? The answer: none. Not a single person I asked agreed to do this trip with me. My spirits were down, and I honestly thought It was a no-go until, my uncle called one day. 

This was the same man who took me on my first fly fishing trip, who watched me catch my first rainbow trout that slithered through my fingers, and unfortunately watched me hook more tree-limbs than trout that day. The same man who, while living with him over one summer, sat down and shared a beer with me and talked to me about life until the wee hours of the morning, on multiple occasions. The same man who although not my father, I consider the strongest male influence in my life. So naturally, I was overjoyed when he said he was interested in accompanying me on this journey. With high hopes, we chose a trip that would be perfect for a 5 day period - the 76.2 mile through-hike of The Foothills Trail. 

The Planning Process

This is where I ran into issues. As someone who has never been camping other than at campsites a half mile from a parking lot, I had a learning curve, and that curve was steep. 

My first piece of advice for planning your next trip: Timeline. Pick a trip and know that weather, and tough terrain can make a planned 20 mile days - 16 mile days where you don't feel like taking another step. Always heed trail ratings, and underestimate the amount of miles you will be able to cover in a day. Because weather, nagging injuries, sore joints, and morale can slow you down, and slow you down fast. 

Also, take into account WHEN the parks close where your vehicle(s) is/are parked. Sometimes parks will give you a code to open the gate, but you cannot depend on this for everywhere, and you should plan to get back to your car well before closing hours for the park. Which brings me to my next point, parking your vehicle. I know, you are thinking "Yeah, sounds hard, I do that everyday." But my point is not HOW to park, but WHERE to park. If you are hiking a point to point trail like we did, you will need to get someone to drop you off at the opposite trailhead after you park your car at the other end, or hire a shuttle service (yes this exists, and these people are amazing volunteers, so please tip them accordingly!) However, if hiking with a partner you can do your own shuttle, but, always think about access to your vehicles when planning a trip. 

My advice is to write-out an itinerary. This will include a day-to-day plan of where you will go, how many miles you expect to cover, but how many is the minimum to stay on track, where you have access to water (and how to treat it, but that comes later), and available campsites. Always have a back-up plan if you end up having a slow day or a great day, and end up covering less/more miles than expected. For example, you planned on covering 14 miles, but you wanted to push and covered 17, are their campsites around this mile marker? Where is the closest water access? Always be aware of campsites and water, these are lifelines on a long backpacking trip. 

Weather. This one is obvious, but not easy to plan for. Check the forecasts for every city you are close to throughout your trip, and always expect rain in SE Appalachia. Rain gear for you and your gear is essential to making sure your trip doesn't get soggy, and your pack weight doesn't increase by a few pounds. Speaking of pack weight... 

Packing

As I said, I am new to backpacking, so this was a monster of a challenge for me. From tents vs. hammocks to bear spray vs. handgun, everyone has their opinion on a preferred list of things to pack, perfect pack weight, and of course, what brand of products are the "best." 

My advice for beginners: stick to the basics. I know that doesn't sound like groundbreaking advice, but trust me, you can go down crazy rabbit-holes when reading article after article of "DON'T BACKPACK WITHOUT THESE 15 ITEMS!" So my advice is to list out what you KNOW you cannot go/live without like - food (and how to cook it), hydration gear, trail map, first aid kit, fire starting materials, flashlight, overnight pack, tent/hammock, rainfly/tarp, clothes, and a pocket knife. From there, begin to explore pack weight, and add in items that will make your trip EASIER until your pack is about 1/5th of your bodyweight. It is so easy to overpack, and so I recommend putting large value into items that keep you alive, safe, hydrated, and well-fed. "Just in case" items are important, don't get me wrong. But when it comes to adding 5 or more pounds on your back, you should weigh the risk/reward of each item. Also, when buying gear, it may seem frivolous to spend an additional $20 on an item that saves you 18 ounces, but across the board it is a smart move, and likely a higher quality product in the long-run. Pro-tip, fuel canisters when used conservatively can last for a long time, don't overpack on fuel because those canisters are heavy! You may even think about switching to an alcohol stove, which can be made aluminum cans, and are extremely light. 

An additional word on apparel. This ties in to the weather forecast, but also the terrain you may encounter, and also what season you are hiking in. Winter in the mountains is just how it sounds, cold, and often wet be it rain, sleet, and often snow. SO, always pack layers. Often base layers are very light, and can be balled up to soften a pillow if the weather ends up being warmer than expected. Also, pack items that wick moisture quickly. Wether it be rain, dew covered leaves, or waterfalls and streams, you are highly likely to get wet, and staying wet is not fun, and can lead to blisters or uncomfortable chaffing areas. Lastly, footwear is foot-care, and extremely important. Even though your favorite pair of sneakers are super comfy and have great grip on rocks, and you've walked X miles in are a tempting choice (*cough* talking to myself here), choose the ankle support and rugged soles of a hiking boot. You will thank me later when your feet aren't covered in blisters (notice the tape on my feet in the cover picture) and your ankles don't feel like a firework with every downhill step. 

Backpacking 

Finally, what you all have been waiting for, tips on the actual meat of the trip, the backpacking. These tips are less technical than those above, but still helpful (in my opinion) nonetheless. 

First things first: water. When passing water sources, unless you are 100% sure there are other sources ahead, or the extra weight will hinder a tough climb, always stop to fill your bottle or at least drink a few gulps until satiated. Staying hydrated is key, and will make your day much more enjoyable, and safe. You never know when drought, or land-use change can make what the map says is a water source 3 miles ahead, a dry hole. So drink early, and drink often, it will keep you feeling great. Treating that water is up to you, but each method has pros and cons. Tablets are cheap, but you have to wait for the tablet to treat the water. Also taste can be altered. Straw filters are handy, but can only treat water directly going into your mouth, and not always usable, say if your bladder stays in your pack (although some in-line filters are now available). There are all sorts of filters, sterilizing lights pens, etc., but I recommend doing something relatively cheap, lightweight, and handy. I used treatment tablets and filled my 2L bladder at night and let it treat overnight. That way I had water to sip on throughout the day, and never had to wait around for water to sterilize. 

Campsites: Always mark on your trail map or itinerary where available campsites are. You never know when you may have to cut a day short due to weather or injury, and it helps to be able to see if the campsite you just passed is the last one for the next 5 miles, or if there is a another option one a mile ahead. Another good tip is to bring a pencil or pen and mark on your trail map when you pass good campsites options that are not currently listed on your trail guide or map. When choosing campsites be aware of proximity to a water source, regulations of that campsite (leave no trace, pack it in - pack in out, no camp fires, etc.), and popularity. If backpacking on the weekend, and you are planning on camping at a popular campsite, or one near a parking lot or other attraction, expect for other people, and the possibility that an open spot may be hard to find. 

Last but not least: morale. This is of great importance. When hiking with a partner, larger group, or even alone, keeping an upbeat and positive attitude is key. Obviously it is hard to get too down in the dumps when there is beauty all around you, but it is not hard to fathom that by day 4, when you are tired, hungry, thirsty, or have nagging joint pain or blisters, that moods can turn from bad to worse, in a few short miles. Attitude can make or break the chemistry of the group, so if something is bothering you, address it (politely) and get back to having fun, the whole reason you came! Another thing that will help is to have frequent and planned rest periods. It is easy to become irritable when very tired or hungry. So make sure to stop and "smell the roses" so to speak. When there is a beautiful waterfall or valley view, take a short rest, take some pictures, grab a snack, crack a smile, and get back to it. You would also be surprised what a nice, deep belly breath will do for you. At the end of the day, enjoy each other's company (or solitude) by the fire or a good meal, and be thankful for the opportunity. It will make the miles seem shorter, and the trip much more enjoyable. 

Looking Back

My goal for this post was to provide advice for beginning backpackers, and help those who may be planning their first big trip to try and make the process smoother. My advice will not be rocket science for the avid adventurer, but I wanted others to learn from the mistakes that I have made, and the lessons that I have learned. I hope that these tips have helped in any small way, and remember, the world isn't as small as we think, but we are all more connected now than ever. So grab some friends (canines count too), plan that epic adventure, and get out there! 

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Brett Kelly

Research assistant at Iowa State University studying native brook trout populations in the driftless region. MTB, Hiking, Backpacking, and fishing.