My first backpacking trip was a 4 day 3 night trek through the muggy, dense, amazingly diverse, beautiful, breathtaking, harsh, Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica. I was drawn to the park after reading a National Geographic article in which the park was referred to as, "the most biologically intense place on Earth in terms of biodiversity." After reading that I was hooked, and I started planning my big adventure. I found the permits, read blogs (although there was not many at the time), bought the gear, the list goes one. Located on the remote south western edge of Coast Rica in an area known as the Osa Peninsula, just getting there was an adventure in itself. I was so stoked once I finally got there with my partner ready to make one of the biggest treks of my life. But as the miles, hours, and days wore on I started to learn that in spite of all that preparing, I was grossly under-prepared for the hike.
Hiking through the tropical forest was no joke, luckily I was just so in awe of the monkeys jumping overhead (literally) and amazing wildlife in general, I was able to make it through the hike, but just barely. Once I got to the other end, it took multiple days for me to recover, I was suffering heat stroke, heat rashes, I was sore, had tons of random ant and mosquito bites, blisters on my feet, and was just down right exhausted; I was in pretty bad shape. Looking back on the experience I would do it again in a heart beat, it was the trip of a lifetime, but I may have done a few things differently. Below is a list of my top 5 hiking mistakes I made on that first trek, so you can learn from my mistakes. They are all quite simple and will make your hiking treks so much more pleasant.
Test Your Gear BEFORE the Trip
Just because you did a ton of research and dropped a bunch of money on the top gear, doesn't mean it is going to function properly for you out on the trail. Also a lot of gear needs to be broken in, such as hiking shoes and backpacks (check out my tips on finding an awesome hiking boot and how to wear them in properly). There are a few items that are definitely worth investing in. Now, I'm not saying you need to clear out REI and buy all the top of the line gear. But there are a few simple items it is worth spending a little more on. The three things I always make sure to invest a little more in:
a useful first aid kit, and
a reliable water filtration system.
I was lucky that traveling to a foreign area had made me more nervous so I had actually prepped a good first aid kit and done a ton of research on a good water filtration system, which came in super handy. But I hadn't properly tested my clothes and my skin payed for it dearly out on the trail. As I mentioned above, I suffered pretty bad heat rashes, walking through the humid tropical forest drove my skin crazy. But a big part of the reason my heat rashes got so bad was because I was wearing cotton. Its a good idea to invest in a few sweat wicking pieces, usually synthetic materials are good. Also, I mentioned blisters, a big reason I started getting blisters wasn't because I had bad hiking shoes but because I had bad socks! When you are hiking so many miles it is always good to wear good wool socks that will protect your feet, and of course break in your shoes.
A Useful First Aid Kit
Now when I say invest in a useful first aid kit, that doesn't mean buy the biggest kit with the billions of band-aids you will never use. Take the time to make your own kit, that is actually useful and tailored to you needs/trip. Invest in single items, such as travel size sunscreen and mosquito repellent, good multiple purposes bandages, and any medications you may need (I always carry a small pill bottle with a mix of ibuprofen, benadryl, and tums). One thing I learned in my Wilderness First Responder training was to carry items in your first aid kit that are hard to replicate, such as tweezers, a needle, and scissors, almost everything else can be Macgyver-ed using materials you can find on the trail or in your pack.
A Reliable Water Filtration System
Lastly, the water filtration system, you should always make sure your filter is clean and the system you have is functioning properly before you go on a big trip. Your water filter system is your lifeline, and there is nothing worse than drinking murky questionable water because your filter clogged or something (believe we I have been there). I always bring a couple of iodine pills and coffee filters (for the larger particles) as a back up too.
Everything else you decide to invest in is a bonus. A really good idea is to borrow gear from your friend or rent gear from REI before you invest in items, that way you know what you like or want. You can rent so much from REI everything from a tent, to sleeping bag/mats, to backpacks, to cooking stoves (or if you are near a large university usually their recreation center has gear rentals available for the public). They also have a lot of specialty gear such as snowshoes, so if you are only trying it once or not very often definitely renting is the way to go, save the money for more adventures!
Your Pack Will Be Heavy
Along the lines of testing and understanding your gear, just know that your first couple of trips your pack will be heavy. I swear on my first couple of treks there where times I thought I had rocks in my pack. Partially this is just because you don't have a good lightweight system in place yet, but a lot of it is you will just think you need more than you actually do. Check out my tips for backpacking light, but some quick and easy ways to get your pack to be lighter is to travel with a friend (this way you can split the load), bring clothing soap and buy quick dry gear that you can just wash, and consider using a hammock instead of a tent. But honestly, there is little way around this on your first couple treks. Knowing what you can bring and what you can go without, as well as just getting used to walking long distances with the equivalent of a small toddler on your back, comes with experience, until then just channel your inner pack mule and take lots of breaks.
Know Your Limits
The second day of our Corcavado trek was a scheduled 20+ miler, I had never hiked this far in one day with a pack on my back and, man, did it kick my butt! Hiking in the middle of the rainforest you do not want to get caught in the dark, so it was important that we made it to the ranger stations each day. But instead of training beforehand and admitting to myself that would be a difficult trek, I just banked on the fact that I was a young athletic girl, I could handle it right....wrong! I was dying at the end of that trek.
It's always a good idea to be realistic about how far you can really go and to train. Especially if you are going long distances, in different climates (too hot, too cold, too humid) or high altitudes. A lot of the time too, we will try to jam pack everything in, because who knows when you will be back, but make sure you give yourself time to rest, and enjoy the walk. One way to figure out how far you can realistically go is to figure out your pace and work backwards from there on how many miles you can cover over a certain time period. Remember the day of your trek you will probably be able to go further just because your adrenaline is pumping, but I wouldn't bank on that.
By the end of my 20+ mile day, with not the greatest gear and little endurance, I was suffering a pretty extreme case of heat stoke. I just remember watching the bugs against the light at the ranger station and totally tripping out, I was hallucinating from the lack of water in my system. This is a pretty common mistake of first time hikers, you get so focused on getting to your destination, and plus water is heavy and a hassle to constantly stop and filter, so you either forget or just choose to stop drinking. Dehydration can lead to some pretty serious side effects, I have heard of people becoming delirious, muscles seizing up or spamming, and fainting. Luckily enough it is pretty easy to avoid, you just need to make sure you drink. One of the best pieces of gear I have is my hydration bladder, it allows me to constantly drink and carry's a lot of water in a pretty comfortable way.
How much you drink will depend on a number of factors such as difficulty of the hike, hiking conditions such as hot or humid temperatures, and your endurance. But generally speaking you should be drinking about a half a liter of water every hour. Average rate of hiking is about 3 miles per hour, so if you have a 2 liter hydration bladder that means you should be refilling the bladder about every 2 hours or 6 miles. In extreme conditions, such as hiking in a tropical rainforest or climbing a mountain, you probably want to aim to drink about 1 liter per hour, this means you are constantly filling up your hydration bladder, so make sure you know where your water sources are.
Two more things to consider that go hand in hand with hydration include replacing electrolights ("its what plants crave" - Idiocracy) and to pre-hydrate. So I don't really know what electrolights are, but when you sweat you lose them, and if you lose too many, your athletic ability can suffer. The best way to combat this, is to bring sports drinks or I like to bring single serving sport drink powder to mix with water. Another handy trip is to make sure you pre-hydrate that is, make sure you are drinking enough water leading up to the hike. Many of us are walking around on the daily pretty dehydrated already, so it is not great when you start a strenuous hike already at a hydration disadvantage. Make sure to focus on drinking the day leading up to your hike, and avoid drinking large quantities the day/night before, leave the celebration beer for after the hike.
Go With The Flow
And last but not least, just go for it! It can be tedious planning big backpacking trips (check out some of my tips on planning a trip) and information online is not always up to date or readily available. Not to mention, often things don't go as planned. Like in the case of Corcovado, I killed myself trying to get permits, also I had no clue how we were going to physically get to the trailhead. I was so nervous that we would make the lengthy journey out to this remote area and be turned around at the trailhead, hundreds of scenarios played out in my head (all quite unlikely mind you), and I almost didn't go! Turns out the day of, I hitchhiked a ride to the trailhead and ran into some hikers on the trail that didn't even have permits, go figure.
A friend of my often refers to something thru hikers have deemed trail magic and it is not something to discount. Whether it be random farmer who doesn't speak English but somehow you make enough hand gestures to ask him to take you to the trailhead or you end up going on a completely different trek because some small glitch (like in my Skyline to Sea solo journey) or weather or whatever it end up being....trail magic works in many different way, and I have experienced it often in my lengthy travels. So don't let that tiny voice in your head dissuade you.
Sometimes the greatest adventures are not those that we have planned but those that the trail decides we need.