Nearly ten years ago, on May 5, 2002, I started my first long-distance hike: the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail. The AT was one of my first backpacking trips as well — the first had been only two months earlier during Spring Break, when I’d gone to Yosemite Valley by myself and had gone on two one-night trips, to Little Yosemite Valley and to the top of Yosemite Falls. I wasn’t an experienced day-hiker or car-camper either: I had done both activities only occasionally and casually as a child and teen.
Needless to say, I had a lot to learn about backpacking.
It’s almost hard to believe, but my backpacking credentials were actually not sub-par compared to my fellow AT thru-hikers. Very few of us had previous long-distance backpacking experience, and only some had more backpacking experience than me. Mostly, we were all on the same journey — learning to backpack “the hard way” through trial-and-error while walking north towards Katahdin.
Insights from the first 2,000 miles
When I reached that majestic peak three months later, the gear and supplies I carried on my back had almost nothing in common with my starting kit. I had a new sleeping bag, sleeping pad, shelter, stove, and water purification system – of course, all packed inside a new backpack. I had also ditched many items that proved unnecessary, including a solar-powered battery charger, sunglasses, reflective mirror, two extra sets of clothes, 50 feet of rope, and an extensive kitchen set (three utensils, plate, bowl, sponge and 8 ounces of dish soap!). I ate different foods, drank more water, and carried a first aid/foot care/repair kit that was much more streamlined.
My pack weight dropped by half — to about 17 pounds from 35 — due to these changes. But my primary goal was not necessarily to lighten my load—instead, it was to make hiking more enjoyable. A lighter pack helped. But so too did adding some items that I didn’t start with, like a set of trekking poles and ibuprofen.
Like my gear and supplies, the skills I carried between my ears also changed. For example, I learned how to calculate the exact amount of food, water, and fuel I needed between towns and water sources, to avoid carrying more than I needed. I learned that hiking more, not hiking faster, was the key to covering many miles per day. And I learned how to better manage rain, cold, humidity and bugs. Again, these skills made my experience more enjoyable, and allowed me to be safer and more comfortable even though I was carrying less gear.
Pursuing the mantra of further, faster, and lighter
The AT had taught me a great deal about the gear, supplies and skills that make hiking fun. But I didn’t yet know it all, and in the 9.5 years since I finished the AT I have continued to overhaul and improve my system. Some of these changes were inspired by what I learned from backpacking magazines, in online forums, and from knowledgeable peers. But many of these changes resulted from continued trial-and-error, especially in the course of groundbreaking trips in new environments and new seasons, when there was not yet a tried-and-true model to follow.
Learning to backpack through trial-and-error was ultimately effective — a decade and 30,000 miles later, I’m fairly competent out there. But, if I was just getting into backpacking today, hopefully I would have the sense to R&D those who have already figured it out — as in, “rip off and duplicate.” Given the quality of backpacking gear and the body of backpacking knowledge that exists today, there’s simply no reason to waste your money and your time learning the hard way.
The costs of trial-and-error
How much money did I waste in the process of developing a system that worked? It’s hard to calculate precisely, but certainly it was in the thousands of dollars. I ran some quick numbers, and calculated that I wasted at least $1,358 on gear that I thought would be applicable for the Appalachian Trail (or similar conditions) and eventually concluded that it was not. Here’s a breakdown:
- Sleeping bags. Experimented with five models. Net waste: $505
- Sleeping pads. Experimented with four models. Net waste: $70
- Shelters. Experimented with four models. Net waste: $135
- Trekking poles. Experimented with three models. Net waste: $30
- Stoves. Experimented with three models. Net waste: $118
- Water purification. Experimented with three systems. Net waste: $90
- Backpacks. Experimented with three models. Net waste: $400
And I didn’t even try to calculate the waste on clothing, footwear, or any of the “extra” gear that I decided wasn’t actually necessary, e.g. my solar-powered battery charger.
Learning through trial-and-error not only has a tangible financial cost, but there is also an intangible cost—my Appalachian Trail experience was much harder and less enjoyable than it should have been. A sampling of my suffering just from that trip:
- Severe shin splints and tendonitis of the iliotibial (IT) band for the first 500 miles
- Painful maceration of the feet whenever my shoes and feet got wet
- Borderline hypothermia in the Smokies during a cold-and-wet rainstorm
- Sleepless nights during seasonal cold snaps in the Smokies, Roan Mountain, and southern Vermont
- Sleepless nights in the Mid-Atlantic due to overheating inside my waterproof/breathable bivy
- Sleepless nights in New Hampshire due to heavy rain while inside my bivy
- Tortured by mosquitoes in Maine
- Bad case of jock itch due to poor backcountry hygiene
I learned many lessons on other trips too. For example, on my Sea-to-Sea Route I learned that poncho-tarps are best used as “just in case” rain gear or shelter, not for regular use. In Southern California on the Pacific Crest Trail I learned that full-coverage clothing was cooler than my East Coast-inspired wardrobe of shorts and a T-shirt. On the Sierra High Route with Buzz Burrell I learned the value of having a headnet when the mosquitoes are bad (because neither of us had one). And on my Alaska-Yukon Expedition I learned the value of fleece, which retains its insulating abilities when wet much better than other insulations.
Have you learned through trial-and-error?
I was fortunate that I could afford to learn to backpack through trial-and-error. I had more time than money, easy access to gear, flexible jobs, and a willingness to suffer. However, most backpackers are not in this position: they have commitments to family and careers, limited free time for recreation, and a desire to make the most from each backpacking trip.
What lessons related to backpacking gear, supplies or skills did you learn the hard way, that you could have learned from someone else? What resources have you found best to avoid making the same mistakes that others have made before?