When you’re just starting out as a beginner backpacker, it can sometimes feel like there’s an endless set of guidelines to follow and skills to learn. While some of it may become intuitive, there are a certain set of myths and misconceptions that seem to linger for most people.
Here is a list of the most common beginner backpacking myths that I’ve seen. If you’re guilty of believing some of these, fear not! Even more experienced backpackers follow these myths from time to time as well. 😉
Myth #1: "I can stay dry while hiking in the rain."
When looking through the dazzling array of clothing and footwear that claim to be “waterproof,” it’s easy to imagine hiking inside a bubble, with the rain splattering all around you while you stay warm and dry inside.
Unfortunately, this is not what reality looks like if you’re on the trail in the rain for more than a few hours. Your waterproof shoes and gore tex jacket will eventually saturate if you don’t take care to keep yourself sheltered. But even before that happens, you’ll likely sweat things out from the inside, since waterproof materials aren’t really “breathable.”
Reality: Focus on staying warm, not dry. Make sure you have enough to eat and do your best to keep your sleeping clothes and sleeping bag dry at the bottom of your pack. Other than that, it’s better to come to terms with the idea of hiking in wet clothes and shoes that squelch with every step.
Myth #2: "I won't get blisters anymore once I break these boots in."
There are lots of reasons why a shoe or boot that you’ve already “broken in” might still rub and cause a blister.
Your foot and sock can easily get wet with sweat from the inside, or pick up moisture from the outside environment. Even without the addition of water, your foot will change size and shape throughout the day, swelling in mid afternoon to sometimes be an entire size larger.
Reality: Always be on the lookout for hotspots or blisters on your feet, even if you have already done a lot of hiking in your boots or shoes.
Myth #3: "If I do get a blister, I should NOT pop it."
Some people worry that popping a blister is dangerous or risky, and that it’s better to “tough it out” and just keep hiking through it.
But if the blister is causing a lot of pain and discomfort, it might be worth it to stop and drain it. This is especially true if it’s causing you to change your gait or posture, which can add extra stress to your ankles, knees or hips.
Reality: You should know how to deal with blisters so that you can relieve the pain and prevent them from ruining your trip.
Myth #4: "My gym routine will prepare me for a long, steep hike over rough terrain."
Even if you can manage an hour on the treadmill or lift heavy plates in impressive ways, your body may not be prepared for the challenge of sustained hiking.
Covering several thousand feet of elevation over a few hours makes even the most buff gym rats question their conditioning. Fortunately, the best way to train is to just go for a hike. If you know you have a big trip coming up, try to plan some shorter, local hikes in the weeks leading up to it.
Reality: Getting in shape for a tough hike is hard to do in the gym. Make sure you spend some time hiking over elevation to help you prepare for bigger, more challenging trips.
Myth #5: "You never know what can happen out there, I need to carry gear to handle every situation."
No matter how much you try to prepare, there are some things you just won’t be equipped to handle… and that’s okay.
“What-if” scenarios can easily spiral out of control, until you end up with far too much “emergency” gear that weighs you down and never gets used. Instead of thinking of everything that can go wrong, think of the minor things that you realistically could handle in the wilderness, and know how to call for help if things go really bad.
Reality: Understand the risks you’ll actually face on your trip (usually heat/cold, hunger, thirst, trauma). Prepare to handle minor versions of those in the backcountry, but know when a situation is “too much” and you need to bail – and have a plan for that.
Myth #6: "If I throw a first aid kit in my backpack, I'm all set for treating common medical issues."
While a first aid kit can definitely help you out with common backcountry injuries, you need some wilderness first aid knowledge to be able to use one effectively.
You also need to know what’s in your kit and have a sense of when and how you’d use each of the items. How clean should a wound be before you bandage it up? How do you tie an ace wrap effectively so it doesn’t cut off blood flow but still supports an injury?
Reality: Aside from taking ibuprofen and treating minor cuts, it takes a bit of training and practice to handle the most common backcountry emergencies. Don’t expect a kit full of tools to help much if you don’t know how to use them.
Myth #7: "This is a popular trail, I don't need much of a plan, I can just figure it out as I go."
It’s tempting to think that nothing could really go wrong if you’re in a major national park or doing a trip along a busy stretch of trail. It can almost feel like you’re not really in the wilderness if you’re running into rangers or other hikers every few hours.
But the reality is that anytime you’re more than a few hours away from civilization, you need to do some research before you head out, even on heavily-trafficked trails.
You’re still responsible for knowing how much water you should be carrying and where you can fill up next. You should know about expected temperatures and other weather conditions so you know what to bring when you’re packing. Will the trail be mostly hot and dry or will it be more wet and muddy? What about river crossing, talus fields or other trail hazards?
Myth #8: "That thunderstorm sounds far away, we'll be fine."
In civilization, thunderstorms are usually just a minor annoyance: “I have to run to my car!” But in the wilderness – without the safety of lightning-insulated buildings and cars – you’re far more at risk of being struck than you might realize.
Anytime you’re hiking over ridges, through meadows or above tree line, you could easily be the tallest thing around for several hundred yards. Since storms can move quickly and lightning can strike even if it’s not raining directly overhead, it’s important to take precautions to avoid putting yourself at risk.
Reality: Whenever you’re reading a backcountry weather forecast, keep an eye out for thunderstorms. Even if it’s a low risk, pay close attention to the skies before tackling any exposed hiking sections where you’re out from under a heavy canopy of tall tree cover.
Myth #9: "The biggest threat to my food is bears."
One of the most common things I hear from non-hiking friends when I tell them I’m doing a trip deep into the woods is “what about the bears!?” While you always hope that a bear won’t want to come eat you, many people worry about bears coming to ear their food in the middle of the night.
While that does happen from time to time – especially in high-traffic campgrounds – the far bigger threat to your food comes from smaller critters you might not even notice. Think about creatures like mice, raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, skunks and porcupines.
I’ve had mice chew a hole in my backpack’s hipbelt to get at some chocolate chips while I was making dinner 10 feet away. The following night, a mouse scampered right over my bare foot while I was sitting down to eat. These animals are quick and hard to spot, and pose a more likely threat to your food supply.
Reality: You won’t always know when a small creature is going through your treats, so always keep foods and other scented items off the ground and hard-to-reach whenever you can.
Myth #10: "I can eat the same kinds of foods I eat at home."
If you fancy yourself a chef in the kitchen, it’s tempting to think that the same skills and foods will translate well into a backcountry setting. While it’s definitely important to eat foods that you enjoy and are comfortable with, there are also a number of backpacking food considerations you should keep in mind.
Most important is that your nutritional needs will often change on a backpacking trip. You’ll need more calories – and likely more fats and proteins – than you’d normally need in civilization.
You should also consider the weights and nutritional density of the foods you carry. Foods that have high water content will be heavy without offering much in the way of nutrients. While veggies may seem like a healthy choice at home, they’re usually not worth their weight in your pack.
Some foods don’t pack well, bruise easily, or turn into crumbs that are annoying to eat.
You should also anticipate a much simpler cooking setup where you’re basically limited to boiling water in a pot and maybe a bit of sauteing or baking if you’ve practiced it in the backcountry before.
Reality: A lot of the “healthy” foods you might try to eat at home don’t make sense to carry into the woods. Plan each meal and make sure you focus on calories, as well as fats and proteins, plus ease of carrying and preparing.
Myth #11: "I can just use this road map for navigation, or take a picture of the map at the trailhead."
While streets and road signs provide a great references for finding your location in civilization, you need a map that shows trails, waterways and elevation to be able to locate yourself at similar “intersections” in the wilderness.
A map that doesn’t have topographic lines isn’t good enough for use on a backpacking trip.
For shorter day hikes, you can usually get by with taking a picture of a trail map or downloading one from the internet, but you shouldn’t rely on that for navigation over a multi-day backpacking trip, when you’re heading deeper into the backcountry and need to be able to locate water sources.
Reality: The maps you’re used to using on the roads aren’t good enough, and you can’t trust your phone to have battery and reception. Make sure you always carry a topographic map that shows contour lines, trails and water features.
Myth #12: "We've been hiking for an hour so we're probably somewhere around here on the map."
One of the most common navigation mistakes is pointing to where you think you are on the map, and then looking around and trying to fit that spot on the map to your current surroundings.
You start to say things like, “Oh, this road in front of us must be unmarked on the map,” or, “I guess this sort of looks like the turn we’re supposed to be coming up to.” You’re not 100% sure that the spot you’ve guessed at is right, but you go through some dangerous mental gymnastics to make it fit. This is a recipe for getting lost.
Relative navigation is the process of deciding where you are based on where you think you were last time you stopped and how far you’d estimate that you’ve gone. In this way, it’s easy for errors to accumulate over time, especially when there aren’t many landmarks or references that you can use to correct yourself.
Reality: Whenever you’re stopping to check your location, start by looking at what’s around you, and then looking down to locate those features on the map. I always stop at junctions like river or trail crossings, since that provides two distinct lines that likely only cross in one easy-to-find spot on the map. If you’re travelling in more remote territory, you’ll need to learn map and compass skills in order to take bearings and transfer them to your map.
Myth #13: "I need the warmest sleeping bag I can get to make sure I don't freeze."
While preparing for your trip, you definitely want to make sure you’ve got something warm enough for the cold temperatures you’ll experience overnight. But getting a sleeping bag that’s too warm has a lot of problems as well.
Warmer sleeping bags are bulkier in your pack and add more weight that you have to carry around all day while you’re hiking. Plus, all of that extra insulation will keep you hot and sweaty at night, making it uncomfortable and hard to fall asleep in your sleeping bag.
Reality: As always, it’s important to do some research to know the actual conditions you’ll face on your trip, and to prepare specifically for those. Bringing a sleeping bag that’s way too hot is a recipe for a bad night’s sleep.
Myth #14: "I need the latest and greatest gear to stay safe and have a good trip."
There are plenty of reasons to buy new gear. A lot of it comes down to being a gadget person or loving your hobby – perhaps a bit too much sometimes.
But it isn’t necessary to have all of the latest fabric, technology and gadgets in order to have a safe, comfortable and enjoyable trip. While it’s often tempting to rush out to the store before your next adventure, you can often get by with the gear you have already.
Reality: People have been living comfortably in the wilderness for thousands of years before goretex and polartec came along. You don’t need to spend a ton on gear to have a good backpacking trip.
Myth #15: "No one comes out here, it's okay if I leave a bit of a mess at camp or along the trail."
We all know that we’re supposed to clean up after ourselves, but something about being in the backcountry makes some people think it’s not worth the effort, or that no one will really notice if they leave a bit of trash behind.
It’s never okay to leave a mess in the wilderness, no matter how far out you are. Don’t ruin an area and leave trash behind assuming it’ll never be found again. It will, and it will likely ruin the next person’s experience.
Reality: Get to know the 7 principles of Leave No Trace, and try to follow them as much as possible. Encourage others in your group to do the same.
Myth #16: "I've already got my gear systems dialed in, so I don't need to make adjustments."
Once you’ve been on a few overnight trips and are starting to feel like less of a beginner, it’s tempting to think you’ve “figured it out” and no longer need to think about your gear and planning systems. You may feel like you have a backpacking checklist that works for you and you’re happy to stick with.
However, it’s important to learn from every trip you take. There’s always a few things that could have gone a bit smoother. Maybe you brought gear you didn’t really need or packed too much food. I often learn tricks from other backpackers, like the value of having camp shoes and the convenience of a bandana tied to your shoulder strap for easy access while hiking.
Reality: You’re never really “done” learning how to backpack, there are always ways to add convenience and comfort to your next trip.