Beginner hikers make mistakes. Just as anyone who’s trying anything for the first time shows up unprepared and/or uneducated, beginner hikers are bound to make mistakes. And that’s perfectly okay!
I made countless mistakes in my first few years of hiking, and to this day, I continue to learn new things and expand both my skills and my knowledge. I’m constantly working on mastering new techniques, testing out more efficient packing methods, and absorbing helpful tips and tricks from fellow hikers and backpackers.
Faults and flaws are perfectly normal, even inevitable, as a beginner hiker, and learning from those mistakes is how you become a better hiker, adventurer, and outdoor advocate.
That being said, certain mistakes can be avoided even from the very first time you set foot on the trail. I’m here to help you fast-forward a little bit and get started on the right foot for your first day hike.
If you’re nervous about your very first hike, here are a few beginner hiking mistakes to avoid for a better first day hike in the woods.
9 Mistakes to Avoid on Your First Day Hike
Mistake #1: Wearing Cotton
In all of my hiking years, this is definitely the number one mistake I consistently witness beginner hikers making. I can so easily spot it because this is the mistake I myself made for years. I couldn’t understand why I was overheating so quickly in warm weather and shivering in cold weather.
No matter how many layers you throw on, if they’re not made of the right material, your body won’t be able to regulate its temperature and keep you warm. And no matter how light your cotton tank or tee is, your sweat will stick to it and you won’t be able to stay cool.
To stay comfortable on the trail, ditch the cotton (and yes, that includes denim), and opt for moisture-wicking materials like merino wool or synthetic fibers.
Mistake #2: Packing a Bulging First Aid Kit
Carrying a bulging first aid kit may seem like a harmless, even genius, idea, but considering the amount of weight it will add to your pack and the fact that you won’t need a majority of what’s inside, you will surely find yourself rethinking this decision.
It’s a beginner’s mentality to either overpack or under-pack, and though there can be pros and cons to each method, over-packers are ultimately stuck with a surplus of weight. Hauling a bulging first aid kit will likely become a burden.
Sometimes, the only way to remedy your over-packing urge is to take your backpack for a test run. After a long day hike, you will find yourself rethinking everything inside your pack. As you head back to the trailhead after a five-mile hike, back muscles tightening and shoulders aching, your mind will reel as it mentally inventories each item currently on your back. Over-packers will begin thinking of ways to downsize with record speed.
But if you’d rather not learn the hard way, and you’d like to embark on your first hike with a little bit of an upper hand, I’m going to reveal the list of items that reside in my first aid kit (along with the amount I carry for a day hike):
- Band-aids (4)
- Gauze (small roll)
- Medical tape (small roll)
- Blister pads (4, different sizes)
- Tweezers and tick key (one each)
- Antiseptic wipes (4)
- Sting relief (1)
- Bug spray (1 travel-sized bottle, only in the summer)
- Sunscreen (1 travel-sized bottle)
- Emergency blanket (1)
- Electrolytes (2 packets)
- Cold pack (1)
- An assortment of pills (travel-sized bottle filled with 4 ibuprofen, 2 anti-diarrheal, and 4 allergy)
Read my First Aid Basics for Hikers Guide here! You’ll learn how to recognize, prevent, and treat some of the most common hiking injuries.
Mistake #3: Breaking into Brand New Boots on the Trail
If you are purchasing a brand-new, fresh-out-of-the-box pair of hiking boots or shoes for your first trail adventure, take them out for a spin (or two or three) to break them in. Even just walking around your neighborhood or to the grocery store will suffice.
If they are not comfortable enough for errands and casual walking, they are most definitely not suitable for hiking. They need to be broken in and fit comfortably, snugly but not too tightly; otherwise, you will risk getting blisters, injuring your feet, or rolling your ankles.
Mistake #4: Buying the Cheapest Gear
Cheap gear is tempting, and it could be the only option you have financially. But if you have the means to afford nicer gear from a certified outfitter, I’d suggest buying those from the get-go.
I started off with “cheap,” big-box, and generic-branded gear, and though those items didn’t cost me much, I was forced to purchase replacements after just a handful of uses due to lack of durability. Eventually, I gave in and bought the certified, lightweight gear, and it turned out to be a great decision.
Though the cheaper gear will cost less in the short term, the expensive, more durable gear will save you in the long term, since that is likely the gear that you will hang on to for a very long time.
The nicer brands come with a higher price tag for a reason: they will be durable, lightweight, fully functional, and built to last. They will be tailored specifically to avid backpackers and hikers, equipped with all of the features that like-minded trail enthusiasts have deemed necessary to make for a more comfortable and enjoyable experience. You are likely to have an overall better time on the trail with certified, lightweight gear.
If you don’t have the financial means, or if you aren’t sure if hiking is going to be something that you’re interested in long-term, it is perfectly okay to purchase your essentials from big-box stores like Walmart or Target. Though I should warn you to keep in mind that the gear from those stores may be heavier, cheaply made, and have a shorter lifespan.
Mistake #5: Purchasing Gear Without Knowing How to Properly Use It
Make sure you know how to use your gear before you hit the trail.
Get your backpack fitted by a local outfitter to ensure that it fits your body shape and size. Become familiar with the layout of your pack, including all of the zippers, compartments, and features. Know how to adjust the hip belt and shoulder straps and be able to locate all of the interior and exterior features.
Practice loading your pack before you go so that you are familiar with where everything is located; this will avoid a delay in an emergency situation or prevent a lengthy rummaging process when you’re hungry or cold, or in dire need of a snack or a rain jacket. Though you might not know right away where to ideally place all of your gear, you still want to know where everything is stuffed. As you hike more and more, you will naturally figure out the best ways to pack your bag to optimize space and easily access necessities.
Mistake #6: Not Paying Attention to the Weather
As a beginner hiker, knowing the weather may not seem like something you need to pay attention to. Weather conditions like temperature fluctuation and precipitation can actually make a pretty big impact on your adventure.
A pop-up thunderstorm can be dangerous in the woods, especially if you are above the tree line. Heavy rain can also impact your body’s core temperature if you are unequipped with proper weatherproof gear. Hypothermia can creep in rapidly.
A hot and sunny day can switch into a cold and dreary one in a matter of minutes, especially in mountainous or desert regions. It’s best to familiarize yourself with the weather and have a way to access the current forecast while on the trail before you head out so that you can be prepared for whatever Mother Nature throws your way.
Mistake #7: Not Eating or Drinking Enough
When I started hiking, I definitely didn’t eat or drink enough. My first big hike was a 6-mile out & back with over 1600 feet of elevation in the Smokies. I had a small plastic water bottle and only a small baggie of trail mix tucked into my gigantic camera bag. I thought that since I had just eaten lunch, I wouldn’t really be hungry until the hike was over. Little did I know that that amount of physical exertion caused my body to crave fluids and sustenance, neither of which I really had an abundance of.
Though I made it through the hike, I definitely learned a valuable lesson. This isn’t really a mistake that I want people to learn on their own because it can be extremely dangerous. In this case, over-packing is better than underpacking. Beginners and experts alike should always take more food and water than they think they’ll eat and drink, and add an extra day’s worth in case you find yourself unexpectedly stranded in the woods.
On average, humans need about a half-liter (16.9 ounces) of water per hour of physical activity. Water is heavy, so if you will be hiking for a long time, you might want to consider bringing a water filter. You can read more tips on how much to eat and drink on the trail here.
It’s important to rehydrate your body every 15-30 minutes, even more often in hot weather. Munch on calorie and protein-dense snacks often, and take plenty of breaks. Allowing your body to rehydrate, refuel, and regenerate is crucial when hiking, or doing anything physical for that matter.
Never overexert yourself or commit to something you can’t handle. When you’re in wild spaces with limited resources, your options dwindle and survival can be tested. Take risks and enjoy adventures, but know your limits and take the time to refuel your body to be able to keep doing the things you love.
Mistake #8: Packing Too Much or Too Little
As I touched on already, I typically witness two types of beginner hikers: the over-packers and the under-packers.
The over-packers are sure that everything that can go wrong will go wrong, and therefore, they need to bring an extra week’s worth of food, a bulging first aid kit, and their entire closet, just in case.
The under-packers are either unprepared or determined that nothing will go awry.
Let me first say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with you if you fit into one of these two categories. These are two types of packing strategies that might make sense to a beginner hiker. But fear not, I am going to tell you exactly what you should bring in your backpack and what you can leave at home!
Whether you are in the depths of backcountry alpine wilderness or one mile deep in a local state park, here are the 10 Essentials that you should have with you in your backpack on a day hike.
- Food, like trail mix or protein bars.
- Water, at least a half-liter (about 16.9 ounces) per one hour of hiking.
- Shelter, like a space blanket, lightweight tarp, bivy sack, or simply a large plastic bag.
- Layers, wicking, insulating, and waterproof/windproof.
- First-Aid, simply a small pouch with things like band-aids, gauze and dressing, medical tape, blister pads, tweezers, wipes, sting relief, and an assortment of pills.
- Knife, multi-use for things like protection and repair.
- Fire, a lighter and matches to start a fire for warmth, safety, and emergency purposes.
- Navigation, like Gaia GPS and a topographic paper map.
- Light, a headlamp in case you are stuck on the trail when it gets dark.
- Sun protection, like a sun hat, sunscreen, sun shirt, and SPF chapstick.
Mistake #9: Not Following Leave No Trace
I didn’t become familiar with Leave No Trace until I had been hiking for a few years. Though I knew the basics (pack out my trash, don’t litter, never approach wildlife, don’t deface natural spaces), I didn’t know the seven Leave No Trace Principles and how to apply them to my everyday hikes.
Knowing what I know now, there are several things I’ve done over the years that I wish I could undo or erase. Naivety can be dangerous when recreating outdoors.
Now, I am a passionate outdoor advocate, and I will continue to do my part to ensure that I and all hikers, future and current, are aware of the seven principles that, when followed, keep our wild spaces protected and unscathed.
- Plan Ahead & Prepare
- Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Others
I have a blog post that goes in-depth into each of the seven Leave No Principles and how we can all do our part to keep our outdoor spaces clean.
Hopefully, you all can learn from my mistakes and start off better than I did! But remember: mistakes are inevitable, so don’t get discouraged if you make one (or several). Learn from those mistakes to have an even better second hike!