If you've been thinking about jumping into the sport of backpacking chances are you've done quite a bit of research on gear to buy or rent; however, this isn't always the case. As someone who works as a guide and has done a number of distance hikes I can tell you while many people are doing the research there are still huge numbers of people who do absolutely no research at all. Don't let your first trip take you by surprise! Here are some common beginner mistakes a lot of people make on their first few backpacking trips and some tips for how to avoid making them.
Carrying the Wrong Gear
We have all seen people out on the trail for the weekend carrying that backpack their dad bought back in 1979. While the gear manufactured back then was truly built to last, sitting in the basement unused since the 80's means that your gear has a tendency to fall apart the minute you try to put it through the rigors of a backpacking trip. As a guide, I've repaired numerous pieces of "durable and built to last" backpacking gear out on a trip. Avoid this happening to you by heading to an outfitter and buying a new pack, getting fitted properly and learning how to use it. Can't afford a new pack for the once-a-year trip you're about to take? There are plenty of gear rental companies out there to help you out! Try looking online for a local place where you're headed into the woods, or check out a website like Get Out Backpacking for ultralight gear rental you can do online.
Carrying Too Much Gear
Just because you bought it doesn't mean it needs to come out on the trip with you! While many outdoors aisles have lots of fun and cool-looking outdoor tools you don't necessarily need to bring them on a trip! Carry a small Swiss Army knife instead of that Leatherman multitool. Leave the hatchet and saw at home. A solar charger is useless under most tree canopies. Cosmetics and deodorants will melt. A full camp kitchen isn't necessary. And last, but not least, you aren't going to need a different set of hiking clothes every single day. By going through your pack and eliminating extra items you'll be able to shave a few pounds off your pack's overall weight. By carrying less weight you'll decrease your chance for injury and have a more enjoyable trip. Remember - a pack should never be more than 20% of your total body weight!
Carrying Outdated Gear
Now, I'm not saying that the gear you bought in the late 90's isn't any good any more. I'm sure it's great! But, what I am saying is that it might be time to retire that heavy gear to your front country camping stash instead. Over the last several years backpacking gear has become significantly lighter and more advanced. While it was common for thru hikers to carry 30-40 pound packs back in the 90's it is no longer necessary for hikers to carry that kind of weight. By updating your gear piece by piece you'll save yourself quite a few pounds. One of my favorite switches is a water filtration system. Commonly weighing a pound or more, the old-fashioned water pumps are no longer necessary with options out on the market today. Consider switching to a Sawyer Mini or Squeeze system and ditch that Nalgene bottle for a Smartwater bottle and you've saved yourself nearly two pounds and only spent about $20.
Take More Breaks
As a guide, I teach people not only how to update, replace, or even buy gear properly, I also teach people how to hike properly. Just because you did a 15-mile hike the last time you went into the woods doesn't necessarily mean you can still do 15 miles without any training time again! By taking a slower pace and taking a few snack and stretch breaks along the way you'll not only get to camp in one piece, you'll also wake up the next morning with fewer aches and pains. I recommend taking a 5-minute break every hour to take off your pack and roll out your neck (because looking down at the ground for an hour can really do a number on you) and stretch out your legs. Snack breaks, even if you're not hungry, can help your body recover before you can even tell that you need to. Taking small sips of water throughout the day will also go a long way against preventing dehydration.
These are just a few of many tips I could offer to help make your first (or first in a while) backpacking trip go successfully. What are some mistakes you made when you first became a backpacker? What advice would you give someone who wants to try to go out on their own for the first time?