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Top 10 Beginner Hiker Blunders

"I've made the mistakes so you don't have to."
Hiking in JeansPhoto by David Sorich

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Careless hikers are more likely to tumble off a cliff, poke a diamondback rattler, and otherwise get themselves in trouble’s way. And frankly, our nation needs more outdoorsy people, not less.

So Backpacker asked me, the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Backpacking and Hiking ($17, Alpha, 2010), to answer all of your camping, hiking, cooking, training, you-name-it questions. I’m no gonzo, Everest-scaling, bear-wrestling hardman, but I’ve hiked enough miles to recognize which mistakes first-timers tend to make. So let’s get started with part 1 of the first post:

The Top 10 Beginner Hiker Blunders 

1. Wearing denim like Johnny Depp on 21 Jump Street
News flash: Denim is cotton, so wearing jeans (and jean jackets for that matter, Mr. Depp) is a poor choice for any hike, especially in rainy or cold weather. That’s because cotton retains moisture instead of wicking it away like wool and polyester fabrics. Once cotton gets wet, it takes a long time to dry out; that moisture on your skin siphons away body heat through convection, leaving you shivering in your boots, and more susceptible to hypothermia (hence the aphorism “cotton kills”). Jeans are the worst of all cottons because they can ice up in below-freezing weather. I learned this lesson on my first hike with the Appalachian Mountain Club in New Hampshire, and I’ve remained cotton-free ever since, except on short summer hikes where getting chilled isn’t a danger. So the next time you see hikers wearing blue jeans, remind them that the 1980s are over and that Johnny Depp now prefers tri-corner hats and eye-liner.

2. Buying your tent or sleeping bag at Wal-Mart
Sam Walton was an Eagle Scout, but he didn’t become America’s richest man selling top-quality camping and hiking gear at discount prices. Yes, Wal-Mart does sell an Ozark Trails sleeping bag for $10, but I wouldn’t use it on a real Ozark Trail. It’s fine to buy your beef jerky, trail mix ingredients, and propane canisters at big-box retail stores, but trust specialty outdoor stores and reliable brands for the gear that matters most, like footwear, raingear, sleeping bags, and tents.

3. Hiking a trail with a road map
Not all dotted lines are made equal. Thus, the map that helps you find the trailhead parking lot won’t help you navigate a trail. Hyper-detailed USGS topographical maps (called “quads”) are the gold standard for backcountry navigation, but they are often overkill for popular and well-marked trails. Much easier to acquire and use are designated trail maps that include topographical features like rivers, ridges, and peaks, as well as key info like hiking mileage and trailheads. Book stores and visitor centers often stock maps and guidebooks for local trails, while National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated series is great for U.S. recreation hot spots from Acadia to Zion. And don’t forget Backpacker.com’s new Print & Go weekend planners, which include gear checklists, driving directions, and waypoints for dozens of popular hike

4. Packing a first aid kit as if you’re landing on Omaha Beach
Morphine? Check. Gauze bandages? Check. M1 rifle? What? Most novice hikers either forget to bring a first-aid kit, or pack an entire pharmacy. Neither represents the right approach. You should bring a first-aid kit appropriate for the length of your trip, the size of your group (along with any individual medical needs), and your medical knowledge. The last one is important: If you don’t know how to use a first-aid item—like a suture kit—you probably shouldn’t be carrying it. Packing obscure supplies you’ll probably never use in place of additional bandages and painkillers doesn’t make sense. Basic first-aid essentials for most outings should be: adhesive bandages (various sizes), medical or duct tape, moleskin, sterile gauze, ibuprofen, Benadryl, antibiotic ointment, and alcohol wipes.

5. Being overhead saying, “Lightning can’t strike me—I’m not carrying anything metallic.”
If you think lightning only strikes metal objects, ruminate on this ancient Chinese proverb: “The tallest blade of grass is the first to be cut by the scythe.” Then substitute “knuckleheaded hiker” for the tall grass and “zapped by 100 million volts of electric juice” for the scythe, and you’ve got Professor Hike’s updated proverb on why you absolutely need to descend from exposed peaks and ridgelines when an afternoon thunderstorm is brewing. Lightning is attracted to tall, isolated objects, which could be anything from a clueless hiker standing on a summit to a lone tree. And even if you’re not touching that lone tree, the lightning might strike the ground right next to it, or the ground current may surge up you. Secondary strikes can be just as deadly. What’s more, lightning can strike targets up to 10 miles from the center of a storm. Trust me on that; I’ve got a few hair-raising tales from New Mexico to prove it. Instead, get into a forest or the low point of rolling hills, a ravine, or a gully.

6. Going ultra-light without ultra-experience
A regular backpacker going ultra-light is like a vegetarian becoming a vegan—it takes time to dial down a new, safe system. Definitions vary, but ultra-light hiking generally means having a base pack weight (your gear minus food and water) of 10 to 12 pounds. The advantage, of course, is that you have less weight to schlep, but your safety net also shrinks: You have fewer backup provisions (food, fuel, warm clothes) if things go wrong, like you fall in a river or rodents steal your food.

The more backcountry experience you have, the more safely you can go ultra-light simply because you’re better equipped with skills to, one, avoid such mishaps and, two, improvise if they do occur. However, even expert mountaineers can pay the ultralight price. Think of Joe Simpson of Touching the Void fame: During his and his partner’s ascent of Siula Grande in the Andes, bad weather prolonged their climb, causing them to run out of fuel for melting snow for water—something that later would contribute to Simpson’s fall into a crevasse.

That’s why ultra-light hiking should be a gradual goal and not a first-time objective. Reducing pack weight is a skill you hone after much experimentation. So how much weight should you carry on a typical day-hike? Is it 10, 15, or 20 pounds? It all depends on the circumstances. If you’re hiking a dozen miles alone on a mellow trail, you can carry a sub-10 pound load of water, snacks, rain gear, headlamp, and the always essential map, compass or GPS. But if the trail is unfamiliar, tricky, or remote, and you’re hiking in a larger group, you might want to add a small first-aid kit, warm clothing, and extra water and food that pushes your weight north of 15 pounds. That’s because carrying more gear—along with the skills to use it—is your best strategy to reduce risk.

7. Wearing boots fresh from the box
I’m not a fan of hiking proverbs, but there’s one that I consider gospel: “If your feet are happy, the rest of you is happy.” I wised up to that fact on a 95-mile trek (Scotland’s bonny West Highland Way) that I began with stiff leather boots I hadn’t worn in eons. Those boots shredded my feet on the first day out, and I spent the next week limping up and down Scotland’s green hills. Trust me, neither you nor your feet will by happy if you begin a big trip with untested shoes or boots. Starting weeks ahead of time, you need to break them in while mowing the lawn, walking the dog, or running errands around town. Trail shoes, which perform more like athletic footwear, conform quickly to your feet, while taller, rigid boots require more break-in time. Wear recently purchased shoes indoors at first, since most outdoor stores have return policies that exclude those worn outside. If your feet hurt or develop hotspots or blisters, apply bandages, experiment with different socks, and keep at it. Remember also that most people’s feet swell a half size or more by the afternoon.

8. Starting too late in the day
Showing up an hour late for a 7 p.m. dinner reservation is bad manners. But starting at 2 p.m. a hike that you intended to begin at 10 a.m. is bad news. Unless you want your 15 minutes of fame on the CNN ticker (“Clueless Hikers Survive Freezing Nights in Wilderness”), it’s best to start on time, or shorten your route. I learned this lesson the hard way on a 10-mile hike in New Hampshire that began four hours late, included a few frustrating wrong turns, and ended at the trailhead parking lot just before midnight.

Besides an early start, how fast you move matters, too. An athletic adult hikes at 3 mph, but that rate drops to 2 or even 1 mph when you factor in rough terrain, elevation changes, and rest breaks. Groups always move slower than individuals, and a snail on crutches will beat families with toddlers. If you find yourself starting later than anticipated, check your map for shorter routes or a cut-off trail to reach your destination before sunset. If you find yourself falling behind, avoid the lure of cross-country shortcuts, and instead keep moving, watch the time, and be prepared to finish using headlamps, which you packed for just such an occasion.

9. Ignoring the weather forecast
A little rain isn’t a reason to cancel a hike. That’s why we have Gore-Tex boots and waterproof jackets, right? But even the best equipment can’t provide 100 percent protection from the soggy remnants of a hurricane or an Arctic-born blizzard. So before every trip, I review the website www.noaa.gov, which uses a Google Maps interface to generate five-day forecasts for precisely where I’ll be hiking. These results are far more accurate than the traditional forecasts for the nearest town, which could be miles away and thousands of feet lower than a trail. Plus, you can read the “Forecast Discussion,” which is like eavesdropping on local meteorologists during their coffee breaks.

Thanks to a NOAA forecast, I knew ahead of time that a powerful thunderstorm would crash a recent backpacking trip in the middle of the night. So I minimized the danger by picking a sheltered campsite, pitching my tent away from lone trees and dangling branches, and tightening the guy-lines for my rain-fly. Sure enough, I awoke at 1 a.m. to witness a ferocious—but mostly harmless—atmospheric cannonade of light and sound. And by morning, as the forecast predicted, the skies were blasted clear.

10. Skimping on Leave No Trace
Litterbug? Not you. I bet you’re a committed recycler. Maybe you even wash and re-use zipper-lock bags. But on a camping trip, where do you dump the soapy water after washing dishes? Do you really strain out the food bits and scatter the “gray” water at least 200 feet from any lake, stream, or campsite? And do you use biodegradable soap? That’s what Leave No Trace (LNT) (www.lnt.org)—seven principles promoting ethical, low-impact outdoor recreation—advises you to do. It’s easy to practice LNT’s major rules: Carry out trash, keep away from wildlife, and minimize the impact of campfires. The finer points, however—like packing out toilet paper and building small fires—are harder to follow. But since Bambi doesn’t crap up your bedroom, you should extend the same courtesy. So here are Prof. Hike’s six tips to make the tough tenets of LNT more achievable:

  • 200 feet equals 40 adult strides.
  • Use the rubber tip of a spatula to scrap leftover food from plates and bowls into your mouth.
  • Reduce odors by placing silica gel desiccates (those moisture-absorbing packets found in shoe boxes and other packages) into your trash bag, then double-bagging it.
  • Use dryer lint as natural fire tinder.
  • Carry versatile sanitary wipes instead of flimsy toilet paper.
  • Stop washing dishes, as veteran hiker Johnny Molloy advocates in this June 2007 Backpacker article.

OK, there you have it: my top 10 list of n00b blunders. Let us know what you would add to the list!

—Jason Stevenson

12 Comments

  1. jasonastevensonhotmail-com

    BeTRAIL: 5+ ways we betray ourselves on the trail

    Some family, friends, and I hiked a section of the Appalachian Trail starting at Amicalola State Park. Hobo and I hiked six days over ten mountains in nighty degree heat with forty pound packs for forty miles. Sloth, Birthday, and Dozer did twice that! Looking back, it was both an amazing and difficult experience. We plan to section hike the Appalachian every year starting where we left off. Being a novice, I can’t help but think of lessons I learned on the trail and what I can do better next time. I’ve consolidated some of my thoughts into this retrospective and I’m sharing it now incase others may find it useful.

    #1 Stay Wet: I drank a liter of water before we started our hike and I wish I had drank more water days sooner. I felt like I was constantly playing catch-up with my hydration. On our hike, water was available every three to ten miles and we each carried about three liters. At first we hoarded our water which led to further heat exhaustion. We learned how important it is to not only have but use our map to monitor water sources. The trail was clearly marked but we still used our map to set goals around reaching water sources. By remaining aware of where we were not only to avoid getting lost but also to understand our proximity to water enabled us to drink the water we had with confidence. We learned to reach camp with a safe amount of water rather than a large amount of water. We saved a liter of water but freely drank the other two liters when we needed. This helped keep heat exhaustion at bay and made our hike much more enjoyable. When we got down to our last liter, we added electrolytes (sport drink powder) and it made a huge difference, giving us a real boost with each sip and helping us conserve. We used water bottles instead of a camelback. Only you can decide what works best for you but using water bottles helped me monitor how much water we actually had. I gave some water to a man on the trail because he had sucked his camelback dry without knowing it. If you are using bottles, have more than one and keep an extra cap as either can fall down a cliff or float down a river. Having a good water filtration system was a big deal for me on our trip. The last thing I wanted to do after hours of hiking was mess around with filtering water. Balancing on wet rocks with sore hips, legs, feet… sore everting really, helped me appreciate the investment I made in my water filtration system. It was quick and easy, so much so that I drank a liter of water while I was filtering water.

    #2 Stay Dry: On our hike, the weather changed abruptly. The deluge of a multiple thunderstorms were a welcome relief from the heat but were also problematic. To reduce weight, I had torn the map and relevant pages from my guidebook and kept them in my pocket for a quick reference along the trail. I quickly realized that I needed to put them into a clear bag to stop the paper from disintegrating into an illegible wad of a pulp. We often joked about using leaves and sometimes did instead of toilet paper. However cleanliness is no joke and a lack of cleanliness can lead to real discomfort. Whether you choose regular or biodegradable toilet paper put it in a bag or container. The packaging it comes in is not sufficient to keep it dry and usable. A rain-kilt may sound silly and unnecessary; however, it is multi-purpose. It is unlikely that your backpack is waterproof. A rain-kilt can be used to cover your backpack and keep its contents dry. A wet tent and/or sleeping bag can add several pounds to your load. It can be worn as a kilt to keep you dry sitting or walking. As a bonus, it also works well for capturing rain water into drinking water. Hikers sweat and I must admit our tent smelled like crate of wet gorillas at night. To save weight, I packed two additional sets of clothes in addition to the clothes I wore into the trail. Each set of clothes needs to be individually packaged for multiple reasons. First, you don’t want to mix your dirty and clean clothes. Second, if it rains you want dry clothes and you don’t want the extra weight of wet clothes. Volumes have been written on hiking boots, shoes, and socks. I don’t think there is a right answer when it comes to footwear and only you can decide what works best for you. With that said, a trail can become a waterfall or stream when it rains. If it doesn’t rain, crossing rivers or filtering water can result in not only wet but saturated feet. This is not a big deal during a day hike but wet boots/shoes, insoles, and socks over multiple days can become very painful from significant blistering, abrasions, and generally waterlogged soles. We turned our boots upside down at night, removed our insoles and rang them out, and attempted to dry our socks over our fire. But these attempts along with walking barefoot or in flip-flops in the evening were not enough. Choose socks that dry quickly; research and try different kinds. Choose boots/shoes that dry quickly; keep in mind that waterproofing that stops water from getting in also stops water from getting out.

    #3 Stay Limber: I fully expected to have aches and pains on the trail after multiple surgeries. Thankfully, neither repair gave me a problem but to my surprise my right knee had an issue. I’ve been a jogger and a day hiker and never had any pain in my knees but I did for the first time after four days on the Appalachian Trail. On our previous hike, Hobo had problem with her right knee and was prepared with a knee brace and more importantly hiking poles. A doctor in sport medicine or orthopedics could describe at nauseam the mechanics at play but all I know is it hurts. Going downhill over boulders and terrain for days takes its toll on even healthy knees. I fashioned a walking staff which helped but it would have been better not to have irritated my knees in the first place by using a walking staff or walking poles.

    #4 Stay Light: You’ve heard it a million times from a million people to only take what you need. They are telling you the truth, even a light pack feels heavy after days and miles. In our group, packs were 35 pounds or less for the most part. Don’t think for one minute that a few extra pounds won’t be a big deal. If you are overloaded, you can’t just dump it on the trail because then you are one of “those” people and a real ***. There are often not any garbage cans on the trail, trailheads, or parking lots so you can’t dump things there either even if you can lug it a few extra miles. We ended up burning half our food to save weight. Burning is a better alternative to dumping but it does contaminate the fire pit. So the best thing you can do is plan ahead and keep your pack light with only essentials. And I mean essentials, don’t take EXTRA clothing, shoes, first aid, batteries, etc. Many of us are hardwired to plan for contingencies but when hiking long distances this advantage becomes a disadvantage.

    #5 Stay Cool: Lugging a heavy pack up mountains in the summer heat is hard work, really hard work. Flatland day-hiking for decades did not prepare me for this. What helped was plunging my shirt into water at each creek crossing. My shirt was already drenched from sweat but the creek water made a huge difference. Speaking of shirts, I’m not one to spend a lot of money on clothes but the tropical/angler/hiking clothes I had purchased from real outfitters was a real life-saver in both weight and ventilation. The trees’ canopy provided excellent shade for our entire hike so putting away my hat and handkerchief was also real help. One night I rolled one of our water bottles up and down Hobo’s back to cool her off. Another night, I slept with a water bottled under my neck. When it comes to sleeping bags, it can be a real tough call. We have 1.5 pound one-person sleeping bags and a 6 pound two-person sleeping bag. One bag is perfect for Michigan in March, heavy weight with combined body heat. The others are much better suited for Georgia in June. Depending on where and when you are hiking you may need to invest in different sleeping bags or just take a blanket. Another thing to remember when it’s cold is that the temperature rating on sleeping bags is for survival not for comfort.

    There is so many ways to prepare for a long hike: go on a short hike, talk to other hikers and salesmen, read articles, compare products, test your gear, and even watch a movie or two. Nothing compares to experiencing something for yourself and then learning from your own mistakes and the mistakes of others around you. Our greatest self-betrayal is to fear mistakes and not get out on the trail in the first place. I saw men and women, young and old, fat and skinny, short and tall, healthy and not-so-healthy hikers on the trail. Each hiked their own hike and moved at a pace that was right for them. Hobo and I called ourselves Team Mutant Ninja Turtles because other hikers blazed past us but we often caught up with them later on the trail, at a watering hole, or at camp. Do your research, hike your own hike, and learn from your mistakes. The trail is calling.

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  2. gcraze

    While I agree with some of these, the most obvious one was left out. You can basically replace #4 (too much first aid) with the most common mistake… just plain packing way way too much of everything or the wrong stuff.

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  3. adam-s

    Are you sure 40 strides is equal to 200 feet? I’m 6’2″ and on level ground I can consistantly hit 50 feet with 18 strides. 40 Strides in 200 feet means your average step is 5 feet long, that’s a pretty big stride.

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      • adam-s

        I guess the word “stride”, has a completely different meaning to hikers. Every definition I know of and have seen views a “stride” as a long step, and not a series of long steps. Maybe it’s like the surveying profession, to them a pole or a rod has a defined distance but to the common person it’s just long slender usually cylindrical object.

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    • nelser01

      Jeans are OK for dry warm days, but for damp conditions or winter, where there’s a good chance of getting pants wet, I always hike in some type of polyester pant. I like convertible pants when I have temps in the 40s in the morning and 70s in the day.

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