How to do everything wrong on your first solo backpacking trip

Last weekend I ventured into the woods alone for the first time. I did a lot of things right, but I did enough things wrong to suffer more than I enjoyed. This post records my mistakes so I can do better next time.

What went well

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Clothes. I wore a puffy coat, an REI Sahara hat, hiking boots, Lululemon ABC pants, Icebreaker underwear and long sleeve shirt, and lightweight wool socks. Nothing got smelly or itchy despite sweating like a pig in a blanket for two days. When it got wet, it dried fast. Nothing chafed. I didn’t have to think about sunscreen or bug spray because I was covered.

Permit. Henry Coe State Park is one of the few in California where you can just show up and get a first-come first-serve backcountry permit. I woke up at 5:30am, left SF by 6, and got there at 8 just as the ranger station opened. The rangers were extremely helpful choosing a route and then suggesting a general area to camp in the backcountry.

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Rental gear. I rented my tent and sleeping pad from Sports Basement. They were both very high quality ($350 and $200 to buy), and huge improvements in weight and comfort from the Walmart equivalents ($35 and $10 to buy) I used last time I went car camping.

Weather. In the morning and at night I needed my puffy coat, but packed it away for low 70s most of Saturday and high 70s Sunday. There was no chance of rain, so I didn’t have to pack rain gear.

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Intensity. I often want to hike farther, faster, and higher than my friends. Alone, I didn’t have to compromise. I did 7 miles and 1500 vertical feet each day. I rested when I felt like resting, and I went fast when I felt good. I wasn’t waiting for anyone to catch up. I tried to be present and aware.

Relax. I finished Saturday’s hike and made camp by 4pm. From then I stretched, meditated, ready my book, stared into space, and drank Soylent until I slept at 7:30pm. This unstructured time in the middle of nature was probably what I most looked forward to, and it really delivered. When I woke up at 6 the next morning I felt great, both mentally and physically.

What to improve

Pacing. Although I was alone, there was one big constraint on my pacing: bugs. Every time I stopped to rest, within a few minutes little flying bugs tried to crawl into my ears and all over me. Eventually I was tired enough to mostly ignore this, but it made it hard to really rest or slow down. One time, I even sat directly on an ant colony. Swarms of them were crawling all over my legs before I knew what had happened. I brushed them off and ran away as fast as I could manage. Near the streams at the lower elevations the bugs almost disappeared, so I was able to rest much more. At the first stream I hit, I read my book for an hour. Next time I’ll try bug spray, seek a colder climate, or try to live with the bugs.

Pack. By the end of Saturday, my back hurt a bit. By the middle of Sunday, it was very painful. I eventually adjusted the straps and made it much better, but by then the damage was done. The way the straps were configured placed much of the weight on my shoulders rather than my legs. Add to that the excess liquid weight, and back pain was inevitable. Before I leave next time I’ll watch some YouTube videos on pack adjustment.

Sleep. I didn’t prep early enough the night before, so I got about 5 hours of sleep. I told myself I’d sleep in the parking lot after getting the permit, but was too excited to begin. This probably led to some of my sensitivity to the bugs and back pain. Next time I’ll prep earlier and make sure I get enough sleep.

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Fear of nature. When I first started hiking, every time I heard something in the brush by the trail, my heart jumped, fearing a snake or worse. I don’t remember having this problem in other California parks like Big Basin, Big Sur, or Muir Woods. Eventually I got used to it. Feeling this less is probably just a matter of backpacking more.

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Water. I had no idea how much water would be available on the trails I would take, so I left the ranger station with 3 liters of liquid Soylent and 2 liters of water, 11 pounds total. Water sources turned out to be abundant on both days, and were clean enough that I didn’t need to filter them. After drinking my two liters, I filled up my 1L Nalgene from streams and tossed in a chlorine tab. Thirty minutes later, I had delicious clean water. Next time, I’ll start with one liter of water and dry Soylent only.

Sleeping bag. When I made camp, I was surprised to discover my zipper was broken. Keeping warm in the 45F night was an exercise in positioning my body just right to hold the seam closed. Eventually I gave up and put all my clothes and puffy coat on, then got back in the bag. Time for a new bag!

Water crossing. The first time my path crossed a stream, I searched for a nice stick, carefully surveyed and planned which rocks I could use to hop across, and gingerly made my way over. Assuming I was done, I tossed the stick and continued hiking. In a hundred meters, I came across another crossing. This one didn’t have an obvious set of rocks to get me safely across, so I decided to bite the bullet and take off my boots. A few minutes later, I walked cursing through the icy water, sat down on the other side, and waited for my feet to dry. That day, I did the same procedure a few more times, growing to enjoy the cold water on my tired feet.

The next day, though, I knew I was heading into narrows requiring tens of crossings, and this strategy would stop working. After trying it a few times, I suddenly remembered I had packed Fivefingers! I tied my boots onto my pack by the shoelaces, then realized they swung too much and retied them more tightly. I wore the Fivefingers for the next mile or two. They worked pretty well, but hiking sandals would have been more comfortable on the rocks.

I want to approach backpacking with a beginner’s mind. I haven’t done it much, so before judging whether I like it, I should get better at it. With all these lessons, my next trip should be much more enjoyable! Please share your tricks to make it even better!

Software engineer, tinkerer, aspiring mad scientist

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