Trudging along the Inca Trail en route to Machu Picchu, I sighed. My feet were throbbing, my jeans were soaking wet from the rain, and my stomach was both gurgling and cramping. After spending weeks going to what seemed like every sporting goods store in the tristate area, I was so sure I had all the gear needed to make the journey smooth.
But I later learned I had committed a long checklist of amateur mistakes, including wearing new hiking boots, choosing jeans over moisture-wicking pants, and not packing Imodium and Midol.
While I’m still a novice at best, part of experiencing destinations around the globe often involves venturing into the wild. Since my Peruvian faux pas, I’ve been learning on the trails, including hiking in Finland’s Nuuksio National Park to sleep in a hanging tent with Flash Pack, climbing up the hills of Turkey’s Lycian Way and Australia’s Kings Canyon with Intrepid Travel, and even going on a 14-mile, nine-hour hike to Mount Fitz Roy in Patagonia on my own.
Along the way, I’ve learned to pack and dress more strategically, allowing myself to focus less on physical ailments and more on the powerful feeling of being immersed in nature. To help you avoid following in my footsteps, I reached out to hiking experts for the best ways to dodge common first-timer mistakes on the trail.
1. Choosing the Wrong Trail
While it’s tempting to believe you can go the same distance as you do closer to home, start with a shorter trail. “Assume you will cover half the ground you normally would,” AdventureWomen general manager Eliza Hatch, whose first big hike was Kilimanjaro, tells Travel + Leisure, noting that overnight trips will also involve carrying more gear that will weigh you down. “It’s a bit of a conservative estimate, but it feels great to succeed your first time and come out feeling like you want to do it again.” Intrepid Travel’s South America operations manager, Fernando Rodriguez, suggests starting with a four-day trek at most, such as Peru’s Inca Trail or Chile’s Torres del Paine. “Even if you’ve trained in your nearby park, make sure you assume this will be a much more demanding experience,” he says.
2. Not Training Beforehand
“You wouldn’t turn up to run a marathon without training and you shouldn’t on a hike,” Flash Pack cofounder and CMO Lee Thompson tells T+L. “Some people think they can tackle any hike without training or working on their fitness levels. REI Adventure Travel program manager for North America Andy Kronen agrees: “Training in a gym offers many benefits, but the best way to train for a hiking trip is to hike. Walking on a trail with a weight pack on your back along uneven terrain in varying climatic conditions provides the closest facsimile to what you’ll experience on your multiday adventure,” he says.
3. Forgetting to Test Your Gear
“Using untested gear is the biggest faux pas I’ve seen,” Hatch says. “Go for several day hikes carrying all of your overnight gear — not only do your hips need to get used to carrying the weight of your pack, but you need to learn how to pack so it’s weighted in a way that feels good.” She also suggests testing rain gear in the shower, saying that “you should come out dry.” Asheville’s Blue Ridge Hiking Company owner, Jennifer Pharr Davis, who first hiked the Appalachian Trail at 21, also says to make sure you know how to use all the equipment: “Practice setting up a tent, working a camp stove, and filtering water at home before you need to do these things on the trail.”
4. Wearing New Hiking Boots
Perhaps the biggest mistake beginners make is not having the right footwear. “Almost any experienced hiker will tell you that the most important thing to consider before your journey is your feet,” Inns of Aurora’s outdoorsman, Matt Stevenson, says. He recommends getting your feet properly measured and then going for hiking boots half a size larger to leave room for an extra pair of socks to keep your feet warm and dry. “Wear your shoes with the socks you’ll be hiking in for a day or two,” he adds. “After making sure they are comfortable and that you have molded them to your feet, you may put any oil you’d like on them. Few things will ruin a hiking experience quicker than blisters.” And the boots should be properly broken in before the trek. Davis suggests walking a minimum of 30 miles in them to make sure the socks are moisture-wicking (her top pick is Farm to Feet).
5. Dressing for One Climate
“I was with a Flash Pack group who hiked Rainbow Mountain in Peru, and it was a warm sunny day until a 30-minute downfall of snow that completely covered us and made it really tricky to dry and warm up for the duration of the hike,” Thompson said of going up the 17,060-foot peak. Thankfully, the team they were with set up camp and whipped up a warm meal. Alaska Alpine Adventures’ owner, Dan Oberlatz, also points out the importance of regulating your own changing body temperature: “Folks have a tendency to overdress at the beginning of their hike. I prefer to start my hike feeling just a bit cold, and knowing that within a few minutes, the exertion will warm me up,” he says. He also says to only use rain gear when necessary. “I use my shoulders as a gauge,” Oberlatz says. “As soon as they’re soaked through, I’ll stop and put on my rain gear.”
6. Bringing Too Little Water
Figuring out just how much water to carry can be tricky. “A good rule of thumb is one liter per five miles, except in very warm environments where hydration requirements can increase dramatically,” Kronen says. Water can be heavy, so planning is essential. “Getting dehydrated on a trail can be a life threatening situation, so I always try and find a place where I can get water on the way,” Stevenson says. “By either boiling water, having a LifeStraw, or knowing other ways to get water along the way, you can cut down on a lot of weight.”
“I always say, ‘ounces make pounds,’ and that’s always a good mantra to remember when loading your pack,” Oberlatz says. Davis uses the formula of not exceeding 25 percent of your body weight in gear. Try cutting down on necessities by sacrificing fashion. “You’re going to smell — embrace it,” Hatch says. “You’ll want dry and clean socks and underwear, but otherwise, just wear the same gear.” Stevenson outlines the essentials succinctly: tent, sleeping back, food, water, cooking utensils, flashlight, and a way to build a fire. “When you finally get settled into your sleeping bag, the long day of hiking will catch up to you and you won’t miss those creature comforts at all,” he says.
8. Depending on a Phone for Directions
“Lots of people rely on smartphones for compass navigation and maps, but after taking so many photographs, your battery is sure to die, especially in cold and wet weather,” Thompson says, recommending a solar panel charger as a backup. Hatch says to depend on low-tech amenities: “Get a waterproof trail map. If you only have a paper option, fold your map so you can see the section you need and put it in a clear waterproof bag.” Oberlatz suggests doubling down and paying attention to the sights. “Always take in visual queues and reference points,” he says. “Try to understand where you are physically in relation to the landscape.”
9. Preparing for Emergencies
Kronen advises taking precautions before the hike. “Never go on a trip without first letting someone at home know of your plans and bringing a means to communicate,” he says. “GPS devices and personal locator beacons are state of the art, but a whistle or mirror can also be low-tech alternatives.” Thompson also suggests the app What 3 Words, which allows you to use three words to pinpoint your exact location. And Stevenson, who also teaches survival classes at Inns of Aurora, says to school yourself and be ready for anything: “Survival is all about having a plan — and that starts at home. Take some time to learn about the area, know what berries you can eat, and what plants can be used for multiple purposes, like as food or first-aid.”
10. Not Understanding the Rules of the Road
Before heading out, make sure you’re familiar with any trail markers that may be used. A common system uses one to three rectangles, with one box meaning go straight, two indicating a turn following the direction of the top box, and three being the start of trail with one box on top or the end with one at the bottom. Even if you’re with a group, it’s essential to defer to your guide for local rules. “Some treks will go through local communities,” Rodriguez says. “Behave respectfully, don’t give anything to children, and remain friendly — you’re walking through their house.”
11. Not Bringing Trash Bags
“First-time hikers should familiarize themselves with the Leave No Trace principles before their outing,” Davis says. “It’s such a common mistake to want to throw orange peels in the woods or make a new campfire ring at a campsite.” But even those seemingly sustainable actions have a detriment on the community. Always bring your own trash bags and leave with exactly what you brought.
12. Worrying About the Road Ahead
Most importantly, get the planning out of the way, so that you can focus on the experience. “Make sure you enjoy the landscape,” Rodriguez says. “Don’t rush and don’t get anxious if you’re last. When taking a break, turn back and look at what you have done — never look at what is ahead. It’s a mind game to make yourself feel better. Trekking is about the journey.”
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