I’ve Received Some Terrible Backpacking Advice Over the Years. Here’s What You Can Learn From It.
Hikers love to share their opinions. That doesn’t mean it’s always useful.
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Sweet Potato broke out in a cheshire grin every time we asked him if we could go through the contents of his pack. It puffed out at full capacity, appearing massive compared to other thru-hikers’ ultralight packs. And we, his trail family, couldn’t help but wonder why. When he did unpack, we saw everything that a hiker could possibly need: an extra pair of socks and underwear, a fresh outfit, a large battery pack to accommodate a week of scrolling on Reddit, and a luxurious two-person tent. After several weeks of trail family teasing, he finally explained that he was comfortable with the weight of his pack, and he didn’t need prying eyes to help him cut down on the luxurious items that he carried since those gear picks made him happy. He knew himself well enough to realize that unsolicited advice wouldn’t help him.
It turns out Sweet Potato was wise to something that has taken me years to learn. Backpackers love to give unsolicited advice, providing “right” or “wrong” solutions to common trail issues. Our eyes light up when campfire chats turn towards hiking’s many challenges. What do you do about blisters? What’s the best stove system you’ve ever used? How did your pack get to be so small? But there’s no “one size fits all” approach in the backpacking world, since everyone’s body and personal preferences vary. Knowing when to take advice to heart and when to trust your gut can help you level up your backpacking game and feel more confident when making decisions on the trail. Here’s some bad backpacking advice I’ve received through the years that hasn’t worked for me, and a few tips (ironic, I know) to identify when the advice you’re receiving is no good for you.
Bad Advice: Haul a Huge Pack
The first time I read about the Appalachian Trail, I was hooked. I easily imagined myself threading my way down the trail, stopping at bucket list vistas along the way. The idea of making it from Georgia to Maine on my own two feet captivated my attention like nothing else. But I didn’t know the first thing about backpacking. So I decided to visit my local outdoor retailer to find some guidance.
It didn’t take long for a middle-aged employee to notice me, doe-eyed, standing around the camping aisle. I explained that I was preparing for the Appalachian Trail, and I needed a pack that would do the job. He lifted a 70-liter pack off of the wall, told me that it was the best option for an expedition of that magnitude, and that I should try it on. I humored him, but a pit in my stomach told me that something was wrong. A 70-liter pack was sure to weigh dozens of pounds when full. I wasn’t so sure that my 125-pound frame could handle a beast like that. I thanked the man and left the store without a pack, wondering if I wasn’t cut out for the trail.
A few weeks later, I stepped foot in a different retail store, mulling over my own doubts. I found myself feeling skeptical when a store employee asked if they could help me. As luck would have it, one of the shop workers had hiked the Appalachian Trail two years prior. He explained that his pack was just 35 liters, and he’d recommend a similar, lightweight system for me. In endurance situations, he told me, less is usually more: You’re better off carrying a small pack and moving quickly. Plus, if you have the space for unnecessary gear, you’re probably going to pack the gear. So, it’s best to eliminate the space.
During my first trip to a local retailer, it was the pit in my stomach that tipped me off to a potential problem. And, as soon as I started chatting with a former thru-hiker, the pit disappeared. I opted for a 45-liter pack, doubting my ability to fine-tune my system like his, but I left the store feeling confident in my ability to at least carry it. Next time, I promised myself, I would only take thru-hiking advice from thru-hikers.
I learned a valuable lesson in credibility: Those who truly understand your goals and needs give the best advice. Take advice from all others with a grain of salt, and always listen to your gut.
Bad Advice: Touch Every Trail Marker at Any Cost
By the time I reached the White Mountains on my thru-hike, my legs were hardened from months of effort. I’d defined myself as an “purist,” meaning that I was committed to walking every single step of the trail—even if it meant backtracking or adding extra miles onto the journey.
When I finally reached the Presidential Range, my trail family and I were worried about hitting a notorious rough patch of weather above treeline. We chose to hike a marathon day to get past Mt. Washington when the perfect weather window revealed itself. About a third of the way into the day, one friend split away from our group, explaining that he wanted to hike an alternative route across the Presidential peaks that the official Appalachian Trail skipped. I chose to follow the blazes, collecting each one like a badge of honor, while my friend enjoyed a day of perfect views from high up above us. I’ve regretted it ever since.
While most long trails in the United States have designated routes, those who are comfortable with navigation and map reading may be able to optimize their experience by creating their own adventure or hiking their own trail association-approved hike (a hike that isn’t likely to cause environmental damage to the area in question) if doing so provides better protection or more spectacular views.
A common backpacking adage is “hike your own hike,” meaning that you should choose the hiking style, length, and route based on your own goals and desires. Sometimes, it makes sense to ditch purism and divert from the standard path. Doing so could turn a beautiful day into a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Bad Advice: Assume That all Blister Kits Will Work for You
After a 30-mile day through Massachusetts’s wet terrain, I’d skinned the top of my feet raw. A poorly-fitting pair of shoes somehow managed to scrape the tissue from my toes during the day, and every step thereafter burned. When I made it to an outcropping, I peeled my shoes off and attempted to place moleskin around the impacted areas to reduce additional irritation. But my wet socks and snug shoes quickly dislodged the moleskin once I began moving again.
While moleskin was adequate on other parts of my body, I found that it didn’t work very well for my feet. Other hikers encouraged me to put Gold Bond in my socks, to swap my classic wool socks out for a pair of toe socks, or to seal my wounds with Second Skin. But with a bit of trial and error, I discovered that duct tape offered a much more weather-resistant solution. The gray sheets of material stuck to my knuckles even while sweat and water pooled inside of my socks. When paired with Second Skin, I felt confident that I wouldn’t wake up with swollen, infected toes. While this system didn’t completely cure the problem, it did provide some alleviation until I could make it to town.
Blisters—and many first aid matters—are highly personal. While some blister kits may provide support in the backcountry, they’re not typically designed for use in active, moist environments, so you shouldn’t treat them as the only solution. That goes for other body-specific advice like nutrition and dealing with strains and stresses, too. Advice doesn’t have to be bad overall to be bad for you. Listen to your body, and if you’re going to take medical advice from anyone, make sure it’s a professional.
Bad Advice: Hit the Trail Without Testing Your Stove Setup
After the Appalachian Trail, I decided to fine-tune my gear so I’d finally be “ultralight” (or carry a pack with a base weight of 10 pounds or fewer). I’d hiked 2,200 miles with a 35-pound pack, but all of the ultralight hikers told me that ditching my stove in the summer would help me achieve a more comfortable pack weight.
By the time I started thru-hiking the Colorado Trail, I took the ultralight bait and left my stove behind. I’d be hiking through the Rockies in the late summer, and I figured I wouldn’t really want to eat warm food when the temperatures were high. But I failed to test my stoveless system prior to heading on my 500-mile adventure.
As I hiked south, the temperatures started to drop. I climbed in elevation, watching the evenings turn from crispy sun-kissed reveries to frosty tests of endurance. My sleep system kept me warm, but I started craving calorie-dense, hot food. When a fellow hiker ignited their stove and offered me some warm water, I knew I’d overestimated my ability to be comfortable without a stove. The weight savings of ditching an 8-ounce cook system did not outweigh the comfort and safety that having a stove provided even if it meant carrying 10.5 pounds instead of 10. I might’ve come to this conclusion earlier if I’d managed to head out for a week-long hike before my thru-hike.
Fine-tuning your backpacking gear in a world of quickly improving products not only minimizes the stress on your body, it can also potentially improve your hiking comfort. But hiking comfort varies from person to person. For this reason, it’s really important to test your gear setup before you commit to using it long term, since it’s much harder to adjust your system once you’re on a long trail.
Bad Advice: Assume the Wildlife Is Out to Get You
My biggest fears before my first thru-hike: snakes and bears. I imagined myself sitting on the side of the trail while my arm shriveled up and fell off from a rattler bite. On top of that, all of my coworkers asked me what I’d do if I got mauled by a bear. To avoid these possible realities, I scrolled through online thru-hike groups looking for answers. I quickly learned how to properly hang my food to prevent a bear from infiltrating my tent in the middle of the night. I even looked at a snakebite kit that I’d read about on an online group chat at my local outdoor retailer. The yellow package claimed to help adventurers prevent death on expeditions by slowing the flow of blood to the impacted limb with a tourniquet, then using a suction device to extract the venom.
While those kits are still on the market, they’re worthless. Tommy Campbell, a wildlife biologist with a background in herpetology later told me: “Snakebite kits, first of all, don’t work—especially in North America. You don’t want to restrict circulation after you’ve been bitten, and almost all snake bite kits recommend that you use some kind of tourniquet.”
Instead of relying on a snake bite kit to keep you alive in the wilderness, Campbell recommended that hikers “get a doctor, get to a hospital. The bite is almost always a hand or a foot. If it’s a hand, keep it elevated. Try to keep the circulation moving. And seek medical attention immediately.”
Bear attacks are also relatively rare in the United States, making an aggressive encounter improbable. But carrying a GPS-enabled two-way communication device or switching your phone to a satellite-compatible service could speed conversations with a rescue team if you end up in a compromising situation.
From peeing around your tent to keep animals away to repelling mosquitoes with garlic, there’s a lot of bad survival folk wisdom out there. But most of the time, animals want nothing to do with humans. Many common assumptions about bears and snakes are unfounded, which can cause unnecessary worry and pointless pack weight. To prepare yourself for issues, do your research, consult an expert, and don’t be afraid to pivot if you find that something isn’t working for you.