Backpacking Tips and Lessons Learned from a Newbie

Q&A with Emily after her first time backpacking (our Max Patch adventure)

It's hiking season! I'm super excited about tackling another section of the Appalachian Trail this weekend with another friend and I'm still head over heels with the last trip with Emily. To celebrate I caught up with Emily and got her thoughts on her first backpacking trip and what she learned as a newbie.

Happy newbie backpacker on the Appalachian Trail!

Liz: "So are there any big insights, things you learned, or things you wish you'd known before the weekend? I know there are some things I learned the hard way over my years backpacking, and I'm always curious what others found the most surprising for their first backpacking trip."

Yay trekking poles!

Emily: "I would have not packed several of the things I did, but then again it's hard to know because what if something does go wrong and you might need them? For instance, I would have packed less food. I would have left the cell phone battery pack at home because my phone battery did last a while on airplane mode. I learned that trekking poles are a must-have especially for beginners. And a printed map is essential considering the lack of service and that is relevant both on the way there and on the trail."

I got a chuckle out of that - it was certainly an adventure trying to navigate from one end of the section to the other with no cell service and a map that cut out half of the area highways!

Emily also noted she would have pared down on the number of hand warmers she brought, although she noted "hand warmers may have been good if we were sitting still for longer, but I was shocked by how warm my hands and feet were from just keeping moving. And by the way, my hands and feet and always ice cold."

Liz: "So what went well?"

Emily: "Things that went well: trekking poles were much more necessary than I expected. My shoes were lifesavers because I didn't realize how much water we would cross. Layers of clothes were crucial. I'm so glad I had a lightweight warm jacket. A sleeping bag is vital. I really like mine. It is definitely worth investing more money in a nice one."

"I would have invested in a book that explained campsites and stream locations like you did if I didn't have you with me. My map was only helpful for a general idea."

Quick tip: there are plenty of trail data books out there, and they provide vital info on mileage, campsites, and water locations, plus the thru-hike guides have plenty of invaluable info for mail drops, town visits, shuttles, and so much more.

"I guess the other thing is have a plan B because we had to change plans due to weather conditions. You don't want to be so thrown off that you make poor choices."

Have a plan B because we had to change plans due to weather conditions. You don’t want to be so thrown off that you make poor choices.

Truth! Trust yourself and trust the trail, but be careful and don't make stupid decisions. Is that mountain highway too icy? Try another starting point. Is that sky looking super dark, or is the shelter leaking, or are you worried about freezing wind at the top of the mountain? Maybe look at other overnight options.

Emily: "My other lesson learned from you is when in doubt, just shove it. Don't worry about things being nice and folded because they are just getting shoved in your pack anyway. Things will get dirty and disheveled and you just get over it."

I laughed at that, and remembered when I first started backpacking: "I was very into folding it perfectly and flat. And that just took forever and never worked out, so I joined #teamstuff. But that's a hotly debated topic, ha!"

Emily: "Haha I love the name! And next time I won't bring extra bags for items like you suggested."

Quick tip: Ditch the bags your gear came in, and think about which items you can just stuff into you pack. Stuffing lets you fill in all the nooks and crannies in your pack which you might not be able to use if you fold and are constrained by the dimensions of the storage bags. Plus, those bags are extra weight. It might just be an ounce or two per item, but all that weight adds up and every once when you're hiking up a mountain matters!

Liz: "Mountains are much harder to climb when you are carrying the extra weight."

Emily: "Yeah I knew it would be rough, but I didn't actually realize how hard it would be until we were several miles in. I think next time I would do what I considered doing before but just didn't get motivated enough to try out. I will gear up and go walk on a trail or on a treadmill multiple times so I adjust to the weight."

Take your time and enjoy the scenery as you walk. I often found myself just watching where I was stepping to make sure I didn’t die, but having your head down makes you miss things...

"And of course, take your time and enjoy the scenery as you walk. I often found myself just watching where I was stepping to make sure I didn't die, but having your head down makes you miss things, so I was conscious of keeping my head up as much as possible and taking breaks to catch my breath and just soak it in."

This I think is the best advice you can ever get. Backpacking is hard, but if you just remember to pause and look up you can be astonished by what the trail has to offer.

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Are there any lessons learned you've picked up backpacking, or anything you wouldn't think about before your first backpacking trip? Let me know in the comments!


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