I’d always considered myself an outdoorsy person, but if I had properly looked back at my outdoors experiences before going on my first backpacking jaunt… I’d have felt the need to do way more research! Aside from day hikes and organized group overnights, I was pretty green when I finally set out on my backpacking adventures.
I decided to do it all as far away from home as possible, and landed in Peru feeling completely (over)confident and ready to spend the next six months checking out the trails of South America. Here’s what I wish I had known in advance of my first backpacking trip which would have saved me a load of time, money and energy!
My first backpacking trip – 10 things I wish I knew:
1. How to distribute backpack weight
This is something I’d honestly never given much thought to. My backpack (my now-beloved Osprey Ariel 65L) had a designated sleeping bag compartment at the bottom; apart from that I doubt I placed anything where it should be.
I packed my clothes in the midsection and food at the top (clearly this is the item I hold most dear and wanted it easily accessible!) – when I should really have placed the heaviest items like my food and cooking equipment in the middle, closest to my back.
I had a multitude of carabiners strapped on the outside for my hats, water bottles, waterproofs and other non-essentials I brought along for the ride. I mean, I thought I looked pretty cool – every backpackers top priority, right?
Wrong! How I wish I’d properly known where to store my gear, as I felt the weight of my backpack crush down on me with every step. Over my first four-night trail I did streamline my pack a little bit, but there was so much I didn’t know.
Read my comprehensive advice here: How Do I Distribute my Backpack Weight?
2. Resist the urge to over-pack
As we venture out into the unknown, it can be too tempting to pack lots of little luxuries, home comforts and way more “emergency” gear and food than we need.
The key is to give yourself enough time to pack, so that you aren’t adding things in a hurry before you leave. Make a list, see how it fits. Take it all out, repack it again, shaving weight where you can. Do this a few times so that you’re only bringing the essentials and you know exactly where everything is should you need it.
I’m not saying don’t take any luxuries, as it’s these little things that can keep us safe on the trail, but be diligent with what you do and don’t allow yourself. For example, consider a kindle instead of physical books, only take the clothing you need plus an emergency dry set, and weight and ration your food properly (including emergency rations) so that you’re not transporting unnecessary calories.
3. Know which gear to spend good money on
Once you go down the rabbit hole of purchasing outdoor gear, it is very difficult to return. A simple multi-day trek can turn into a four-figure expense as you splash out on the best gear “just to make sure” you are truly prepared.
If you’re new to backpacking, it can be all too easy to get sucked in by persuasive articles detailing all of the fancy gear you need, when in reality it boils down to just a few essentials. Your top priorities should be:
- Backpack ($100-$200 will get you a quality backpack. I always choose Osprey!)
- Shelter ($150-$250 for a decent tent, tarp or hammock.)
- Sleeping Bag ($100-$150 for a lightweight but warm option.)
- Sleeping Mat ($100 should get you something lightweight but sturdy.)
A bad backpack can ruin your back, and improper shelter and sleeping gear will make you absolutely miserable. Backpacking without a decent set of these can also be dangerous if you run into foul weather. You don’t have to go for the top-of-the-line, but research trusted brands and look for quality over a cheap deal.
Sure, proper footwear and clothes are important too – but most people have something lying around which will be good enough for a first backpacking trip. You may not be the most comfortable you could have been – but it will help you identify the things you want to spend more money on in the future.
4. Choose the best trail foods (high calorie-to-weight ratio)
It’s really difficult not to laugh at my chosen trail food for my first four-day trek through the high mountains of Peru.
Boiled eggs, 2lbs of peanuts, fresh bananas and avocados, way too many chocolate bars, pasta and sauce every night… It all seemed like a good idea at the time; but I added so much unnecessary weight to my pack with this lot!
When preparing trail food, you want to find the foods with the best calorie-to-weight ratio. Opt for: nuts and seeds are a great idea (although 2lbs is a little excessive), dried fruits as opposed to fresh and freeze-dried or “just-add-water” meals which are quick and surprisingly tasty.
A few chocolate bars are a good idea for instant energy but you don’t want too many “instant release” sugary foods as they cause the spikes and drops in blood sugar which messes with your energy levels. Fats and proteins are much more valuable on the trail and your body will be grateful for them.
5. Be properly prepared for altitude
This one hit me. Hard. I took a bus from 0ft to 10,000ft in one day to Huaraz, Peru and spent just one more day acclimatizing in the town before I hit the trail. Over the next four days, I climbed to nearly 16,000ft and back down again and I had a serious run-in with altitude sickness.
My lungs felt squeezed of everything they had and no amount of water could satisfy me. The only thing that helped was descending on the other side of the peak to a more reasonable altitude, and it felt like a physical weight had been lifted off my head and chest.
Acclimatize, acclimatize, acclimatize! Altitude sickness can affect even the fittest of people, and there is no telling who or when it is going to hit. Carrying a 20lb+ pack at altitude puts a serious strain on your body, and you should give yourself several days to acclimatize at your starting height before setting out.
Knowing in advance the signs of altitude sickness and how to treat it can literally be a life saver. Be prepared to drink more water, take it more slowly (as there is less oxygen at higher altitudes) and turn back if needs be.
Fun fact: In Peru they recommend chewing coca leaves if you feel sick from altitude. I learned in hindsight that these are actually cocaine in its raw, milder form. No wonder they worked a treat…
6. Don’t forget to factor in elevation gain & conditions
“Ah, only 7 miles on day one. Easy peasy!” I thought to myself before a particularly perilous overnight hike across the border in Patagonia. What I hadn’t factored in, of course, was the sheer amount of up-and-town on loose shale through thick forest in a rainstorm… with a 50lb pack. It took me a whopping 5 and a half hours to complete and drained me of all I had.
This is a rookie mistake to make as a beginner backpacker, and I’m sure we’ve all been there. Study a map or consult your favorite topo map app so you know exactly what to expect. Elevation, adverse weather and difficult terrain will all slow you down!
7. Test gear BEFORE you head out on trail
This is possibly one of the biggest backpacking sins you can commit. Never rely on being able to “figure it out en route” – always test your gear before you hike. Chances are, if it is your first trip, you’ll arrive at your campsite fairly exhausted and ready for a rest.
Knowing how to set up your tent and sleeping gear will save you valuable time and energy, and is a good way to make sure you aren’t missing any essential parts.
Break in your hiking boots or shoes, and make sure that your clothing doesn’t rub or cause you to sweat excessively. Do everything you can to limit the “unknowns” when you’re on the trail – the wilderness will provide you with plenty of those as it is.
8. Choose proper footwear and clothing for your chosen climate
This one can be tricky if you are planning on doing a lot of backpacking in a short space of time, especially far from home. I went from the cold, high mountains of Peru to a beautiful but hot desert canyon, and wore essentially the same gear bar a few layers. Sweating in leather hiking boots and merino wool socks in 85F is not fun!
Either choose gear which is versatile for a range of climates, or make sure you take at least one hot weather and cold weather outfit. Remember, layers and zip-off pants are your friends.
9. Learn basic survival skills
I’m not suggesting you take a full bush-craft course or become a foraging connoisseur; but having a few basic survival skills will never go amiss. There are a couple of times I’ve needed the following skills and been grateful to have them under my belt. Even if you feel well-prepared, consider brushing up on the following:
- Wilderness First Aid skills. Learn how to treat sprains, breaks, dehydration, wounds and other likely mishaps on the trail.
- Map and compass skills (and bring these items with you!). You cannot always rely on your smartphone or satellite device in the wild. Knowing how to read maps “old-school” can keep you on the trail and get you back home safely.
- Building a basic fire. If you find yourself injured or totally lost or lose parts of your gear during your trek, then a fire can literally keep you alive whilst you await rescue, especially in areas where it gets seriously cold at night.
- Fire safety is extremely important – never leave your fire unattended and always put it out when finished.
10. Have a rigorous safety plan
When heading out on a trail, it is so important to let others know where you are going, how long for and when to expect you back. If you fail to check in with them then they will alert the emergency services and it could be the difference of life vs death.
It is also a great idea to plan several “outs” on your trail – places where you can easily turn back or cut your hike short should something bad happen, or you just don’t want to continue. I look back at some of my earlier backpacking trips and shudder to think what might have happened should I have needed aid or wanted to cut my trip short – I was woefully under-prepared in some cases!
Final words from the author
Backpacking is (in my humble opinion) one of the most exhilarating ways to spend your time. There’s no greater feeling of freedom and limitlessness – plus, all the gear is really fun to play with. Although I’ve been backpacking for many years, I’d never call myself an expert and know I still have a great deal to learn. With every trip I am zeroing-in on my ideal setup, learning from past mistakes and exploring my backpacking style.
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