There is not a person alive that has been into the backcountry and not made one of these mistakes. It doesn’t matter how many times we shoulder that pack and go wild, there is always something we could have done better. There is always something we wished we had and did not have, or something that we brought, carried for miles and did not use once.
It doesn’t matter if this is your first time heading into the backcountry, or if it is your four-millionth time. This list can be used as a useful guide to removing those little errors that can have devastating consequences.
“I have undoubtedly made every mistake in this list at least once, and I have been hiking the world for as long as I can remember. So, do not be disheartened if this is all new to you. We all have to begin somewhere!”
Take advice from the right people
I was trekking Tasmania’s Overland Track in winter, when two fit looking men in their twenties were coming down from Cradle Mountain. We stopped for a chat. They warned of black ice, blizzards, a wind blowing from the end of the Earth and snow drifts large enough to bury giants. It sounded as though we were heading into a supernaturally-summoned storm.
The very Armageddon that would swallow the earth from within.
For a couple of hours that morning it weighed on my mind and I considered not even attempting the peak. And then I got there.
A breeze was blowing, there was a little snow and all-in-all, I would consider it one of the easier days trekking I have ever come across. You see? It could have been those guys’ first time in the backcountry, and that mountain seemed extreme to them. As an experienced hiker I found it quite a standard day in the mountains in winter.
Heed the right advice from the right people. The rangers and those people at the visitor information center at the trailhead, those are the people you should be listening to.
Hiking gear ain’t cheap. If it is cheap, it is rubbish
Less is more with hiking. So, do not be surprised if you are looking at an item and are wondering: How can something so light cost so much? It costs so much because it is so light.
The same principle applies to other items as well. Go ask the bloke who has been walking in the rain for a solid week if all his waterproof stuff was waterproof, and I bet you it wasn’t. Waterproof – believe it or not – is a relative term, because nothing is waterproof forever.
You increase the chance of your gear holding out, lasting longer, staying dryer and being easier to carry if you do the research into the best brands and spend the money on the lighter stuff.
There is a reason you can go into one of those large retailers (that shall remain nameless) and buy a sleeping bag and a tent for $25. That’s because it is rubbish!
And just while we are talking about gear, it is so important to take the right stuff with you. There is no point taking a tropical sleeping bag with you if overnight temperatures are going to drop below 30°F. You are going to freeze. Or have a bad time. One of the two.
Break those boots in!
Hands up. Who has taken an underdone pair of boots on an over-sized trekking trip? Did you have fun? Of course you didn’t. In case you were wondering, my hands were up as well. Both of them. Twice.
My most recent pair of heavy-duty backpacking boots (Zamberlan LUX GTX: Review here) arrived via post. I knew they were going to fit as I had owned Zamberlans previously. However, they arrived two days before my departure for Vietnam, where I was to undertake a seven-day trek over mountains and through rice paddies.
I put them on straight away and wore them the whole way to Vietnam, but the hard leather meant they needed a good break-in period, and my feet were in a fair bit of pain for the first couple of days, with large blisters forming on both heels and on my smaller toes. The boots came good and have been amazing ever since, but that is pain you can do without when you want to enjoy yourself in nature.
I also had the luxury of knowing my boots were going to come good. I had done it with Zamberlans before. If you have bought your first pair of hiking boots, and you have bought the wrong ones, you need to know about that while you are still in town.
Don’t take too much stuff
You have packed your bag the night before, shouldered it, done a small lap of the kitchen and lounge room, before dropping it again. It is a little heavier than I thought it was going to be – you think - but it will be okay.
Unfortunately, if your pack felt heavy in the 30-foot stroll around your house, then times that feeling by a thousand after dragging that darn thing over arduous terrain for a week. You will be digging holes to bury stuff.
“Where did the plates and cutlery go, Steve? You were carrying them.”
“Oh.. ummm.. I’m not… ummm… not so sure, Jane.”
I so often see exhausted trekkers arrive at a site, set up camp, take out picnic sets with large wooden chopping boards, unearth bottles of red wine along with wine glasses and 20 pounds of cooking apparatus.
They will have a wonderful party the first night. Nearing the end of the trek they will be looking at the wooden chopping board and will be wishing they could return it to the forest.
It is possible to make homemade, preservative-free, freeze-dried meals that just require the addition of hot water. Or you can buy these meals from any good hiking or outdoors shop. Eat your dinner out of the near-weightless bag with a near weightless disposable wooden spoon. Drink out of your jet boil cup. Easy.
Take a satellite phone or Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)
When I head into the quieter backcountry areas, I usually take a satellite phone with me. I use this to check in with someone back in civilization at certain times. I have never needed it, but would always like to be able to call emergency services in case something unthinkable happens on the trail.
Many people, myself included, cannot afford to just go out and buy something that expensive. Look for companies that rent these products and shop around. You will be surprised how affordable short-term rentals are, and that extra peace of mind is invaluable.
Other like-minded options are PLBs, which should be kept on your person at all times while trekking the backcountry. You are not going to want to be searching the bottom of your pack for it when you need it most.
When activated, a satellite pings your location to whoever you registered as your contact, informing them that, for whatever reason, you needed to hit that red button.
Take water, think water
You are probably made up of about 60% of that wondrous combination of hydrogen and oxygen, and your body does not tend to do so well without it. However, one gallon of the stuff weighs about 8.3 pounds, making it one of the heaviest essential items to have with you at all times.
I could not tell you the amount of times I have handed out water purification tablets to fellow backcountry explorers who did not have their own. I have met newbies that were putting their health on the line, drinking straight from water sources not too far from agricultural land. In fact, I now take roughly triple the tablets I would expect to use, just in case I meet such people.
Know exactly where you can fill your water bottles, and budget your water accordingly. In colder climes your water intake will be a lot less than on the hotter treks. Are you trekking in a seasonal location?
Where I am from, for instance, in Northern Australia, we have only two seasons: a wet one and a dry one. Before heading off the beaten path we need to know exactly just how much water is still available on the land. Water is essential to survival!
Test everything before you go
You get 10 miles down a lonely track and take that gas stove out for the first time. You realize only now, that the moron in the shop had no idea what he was talking about, and has sold you the wrong gas canisters to go with your stove.
It is too late to ring his neck, and you just know he is at home eating a hot meal that very second, so you must do the only thing you can. Suck it up and blame yourself. Because it doesn’t matter how much of a moron that guy was, you have made even him look smart by not testing your gear first.
It is of paramount importance to know how everything works before you head into a remote location. Know how to set that tent up quickly. You never know when it may be the only shelter you have from a storm. There is no point getting to camp on the first night, only to realize you have the wrong batteries for your head torch.
If you buy a waterproof jacket, the very next time it rains, put that thing on and go for a dance. You will soon know how it is going to perform. My father loves hiking. He will hike come rain or shine. On particularly bad days, my mother will look out and ask: “You are not going out in that, are you?” – to which the reply normally is: “Yep. Great day to test out my gear!”
Take a backcountry or ultralight pack
The market today is flooded with different types of packs that are suitable for different things. You are going to want something that is both tough and light. I have just looked at the best ultralight backpacks, and you can find out about them here.
Only recently have I stopped lugging my Osprey Xenith 88-liter out into the backcountry. Why? Well, it weighs a whopping 5.5 pounds, and that is before you put anything in it.
It makes it an excellent traveling backpack, and I would even take it on a multi-day trek where I did not need to carry my own sleeping system, but to carry that heavy thing for days on end, along with my sleeping bag and tent just seems a bit ridiculous.
So, do your research and buy a good lightweight backcountry pack. It will make a huge difference to your outdoors experience.
Leave no trace
This is a tricky one, because it is a mistake not likely to get the culprit in trouble, unless spotted by someone willing to stand up for Mother Earth. The fact is, if you want to enjoy unspoiled nature, then do not do anything to spoil it yourself.
This means if you take it with you into the wild, it comes back out with you as well. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if it is there already, leave it there. Do not snap something off and take it home as a souvenir. Some places have fragile ecosystems, so human waste should be buried and it is even packed out in some places.
Please be careful where you put your tent. On top of a beautiful bed of wild flowers is not a good place. Neither on top of an ant’s nest (for you or for the ants).
Do not feed wild animals
Again, not something that is likely to have any short-term consequences, or to get you in trouble (but it should!). Take this small notion as an example:
One guy gives monkey food. Monkey happy. Next guy gives monkey food. Monkey happy. Next guy says, “No monkey, that’s my banana.” Monkey unhappy. Monkey try to take your banana. By whatever means necessary.
I visited a remote Javan beach in Indonesia last year, and to get there we had to hike through a jungle. And it would have been beautiful, except that we needed to wield big sticks to fight off the monkeys that were trying to steal our packs. They had big teeth, were strong and vicious, and it really put us in a precarious situation. I can guarantee you people had been feeding these monkeys for years.
Another reason is that animals that have evolved in isolation of human beings are simply not tolerant to our food. But it smells pretty good, so the chances are they are going to eat it anyway. It is not good for the animal and not good for the world. Please stop doing it.
Ignoring weather forecasts and warnings
You have bought all that awesome gear and you cannot wait to try it out. I know. But if that forecast is lousy and you have time to reschedule, then you should probably do so. It is not a lot of fun tramping for days on end with a wet bum.
Trails become more dangerous as they become wetter, while a lack of visibility can lead to hikers getting hopelessly lost.
And another thing to consider: Twice in my life I have had lightning strike the ground less than 100 feet from where I stood (cowered). One of those times was while trekking in the backcountry, and I can tell you, it is not a situation you want to be in if you can avoid it.
We had quickly descended from an exposed peak when we saw the storm forming on the horizon, and we would have been in real trouble if caught up there. If I had been with an inexperienced party, perhaps we would not have realized our perilous position until the storm had already come far too close.
No navigational skills / relying on GPS
Most of us love our tech, especially us hiking geeks with our solar chargers, altimeters, barometers and CalTopo GPS apps. But for those heading into the wilderness for the first time, or indeed anyone, to rely solely on GPS as your navigational tool is a huge no no!
Back in the day everyone had map and compass reading skills. I remember learning mine at ‘orienteering class’ in school. It was important then, and it is still just as important now to find your way through the backcountry, particularly on trails that are not well worn, or are easy to miss due to other factors such as a fresh dump of snow, or a mass fall of leaves in autumn.
If I took you now and placed you in the backcountry with everything you needed to survive, but you had no idea where you were, would you survive? Would you be able to find other people again before it is too late? If there is any doubt in your mind, then consider doing a survival or orienteering course before committing to this recreational activity.
Choosing a terrible campsite
It is funny how two people can look at something and see two completely different things. The inexperienced hiker sees a flat patch of land for his tent, and a slope behind it for shelter. The experienced hiker sees a patch of land that is going to hold all the water that flows down that slope.
Either way, look for flat land that still has somewhere for the water to go if the sky opens in the middle of the night. Look for something that will provide shelter, without the risk of it becoming a waterfall.
Do not leave clothes out overnight
You have arrived early at your site, hung your wet clothes in that luxurious afternoon sunshine to dry, and then forgotten to pack them when the sun went down. Uh oh. Unfortunately, in most places at night the dew sets in, and your clothes will probably be wetter (or frozen) in the morning than when you hung them out.
And heavier too. Unless of course, you are trekking in a desert (but you will have other things to worry about).
And just while we are on the subject of leaving things out. Food, people! Hang that stuff up in a tree where animals cannot get to it. Do not sleep with a chocolate bar under your pillow, just in case a bear wants to have a piece of that chocolate. And has forgotten his manners.
Please keep the discos in the cities
If you are one of those people that heads out into nature with a group of friends, only to wind up the drum & bass when it gets dark, then I have a simple question for you. Why? Why did you even come here in the first place?
You can turn that stuff up in your lounge room at home, at the bar in town or while driving around the place. Put your headphones in if you cannot live without it. Some of us need to get away from the noise for a bit. Unless it is the sound of the breeze or river, of tent pegs being bashed in or a thunderstorm in the distance, then I do not want to hear it!