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Survival Stories

Learn From Our Mistakes: Backpacker Writers Share Their Worst Screw-Ups

From a leaky tent to a bout of hypothermia, these misadventures left us wiser in the end.

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There are many ways to learn your way around the outdoors. You can find a mentor, read a book, or, obviously, learn from your favorite outdoor magazine. Then there’s trial and error: Make the mistakes and come back smarter the next time. It’s a hard way to learn, but you’ll never forget those lessons. We asked Backpacker editors and contributors to share their toughest outdoor experiences and what they took away from them.

My Big Mistake: I Went Hiking With a Brand-New Tent

I wanted to immerse myself in the Great Outdoors. But as I huddled under a space blanket and watched rain stream down the inner walls of my tent, I thought not literally.

I had just wrapped up a semester abroad in Argentina and decided to decompress with a hike. I settled on a three-day trip up 9,461-foot Cerro Champaquí, the tallest mountain in the country’s central province of Córdoba.

One problem: I didn’t have a tent. After some searching, I found a bright-orange, two-person, discount shelter in a big-box store. Score! I packed my bag and jumped on a bus for the 12-hour ride to the trailhead.

When I set out along the path, the sun was shining and I felt energized by the fresh air and distance from the bustling city. After a few miles, I reached a ranch where most hikers lodged, but I still felt strong and kept going.

A thick mist settled over the mountains, and, in the low visibility, I soon wandered off the main track. I tried to retrace my steps, but the drizzle grew into a downpour. Time to make camp.

Pitching my tent for the first time, I noticed my shelter sported a foot-wide mesh vent at the peak. Rummaging through the stuffsack, I found a scrap of nylon about the size of a bandana. It took me a moment to realize I was holding the rainfly.

Meanwhile, the weather had turned into a sideways thunderstorm that bent my tent’s pencil-thin poles like wet spaghetti. A steady trickle of water seeped in; soon, my quilt and clothes were soaked.

In the middle of the night, the wind worked the bandana-fly loose, and I opened my eyes to rain pouring directly in. I spent most of the night with my shell on, crouched under my mylar emergency blanket like a kid afraid of the dark.

When dawn finally broke, I was already shouldering my pack and hoofing it back to the ranch and its lodge. If another storm came through, I promised myself I’d watch it through a window.

–Adam Roy

Pitch your tent. Light your new stove. Use your water filter. If possible, go on a trial run in fair weather. Another lesson here: Don’t buy a crappy tent. The Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL is a solid pick that comes in a few sizes.

snow on tree branch
Frost on a tree branch (Photo: William Slider / EyeEm via Getty)

My Big Mistake: I Layered Wrong

By the time I got invited on my first winter camping trip, I’d learned two things about backpacking: The secret to staying warm is layering, and a minimalist approach suited my minimalist budget.

I was in college in North Carolina, and I’d planned an overnight to the top of 6,684-foot Mt. Mitchell with two friends, Michelle and Alexander. I enthusiastically put my thrifty outfitting strategy to work.

Four-season sleeping bag? I’ll borrow a liner. Gaiters? I’ll wear my rainpants. Cold-weather clothes? Five baselayers and four pairs of leggings should do it. As I packed my bag, I was feeling pretty resourceful.

It was still dark when we arrived at the trailhead that morning. Icicles longer than I was tall dripped from a lip of rock. I broke one off and wielded it like a sword. You can’t intimidate me, winter.

We cruised upward. My shell pants deflected the snow, but pretty soon I was overheating. Since my next four layers were skintight and made with a cotton-spandex blend, ditching the rainpants was out of the question. Besides, I figured sweating was better than being cold.

A mile from the top, we made camp. I got the shivers as I helped pitch the tent. When the sun winked out over the ridge, I started shuddering violently.

I sat down to rummage through my bag, but after a minute, I noticed myself staring dumbly at my shaking hands. What was I looking for again? I was so cold, I couldn’t think. When Alexander asked if I was feeling OK, my answer was slurred and incoherent.

Rightly suspecting hypothermia, Alexander fed me Reese’s peanut butter cups and Michelle got a fire going. I removed my rainpants and crouched by the flames. Pretty soon, my quadruple-layer leggings were billowing steam. A couple of hours and quite a few peanut butter cups later, I was cured of my hypothermia and—at least as it related to backpacking—my cheapskate tendencies.

–Corey Buhay

Choose synthetic and wool fabrics, and manage layers preemptively. Shed clothes before you start sweating, and don a puffy or shell as soon as you stop, before you get chilled.

Mice can be cute, but they’re also destructive. (Photo: Robert Trevis-Smith / Moment via Getty )

My Big Mistake: I Underestimated the Mice

They waited for the cover of darkness.

It was a nasty night at Los Cuernos camp in Chile’s Torres del Paine Circuit—cold, lashing rain and wind bent the tent walls to my face. Surely the mice won’t be out on a night like this, I thought as I drifted off. My food will be just fine in the vestibule.

In the morning, I awoke to the carnage. While I had tossed and turned inches away, the marauders had chewed a hole in my pack’s toplid and nosed into the main compartment. Nuts had been nibbled. A pasta packet had been shredded. And the final indignity: They’d ripped into my Snickers. My very last Snickers.

That morning over breakfast in the shelter, I learned I’d actually been lucky. That hole could’ve been in my tent. Or worse: A friend camping nearby had woken to wet rodent feet stamping across her face. Of the dozen campers at the table, pretty much everyone was visited by mice in the wee hours—everyone who hadn’t secured his or her food, that is.

I make sure to safeguard my food properly now—it’s better for my gear and the wildlife—no matter how tired I am or how hard the wind is blowing.

And hey, mice? You’ll never want that Snickers more than I do. You’ve been warned.

–Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan

When hanging is not an option and bears are not a threat, use a rodent-resistant bag, such as the stainless steel Outsak ($33 to $37).

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