July 19, 2024

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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said, “By seeking and blundering, we learn.”

He may have been able to turn out a cracking line or two of prose, but German poet and author Goethe clearly wasn’t much of a hiker.

Had he been, he would have known that the consequences of blundering while smack bang in the middle of nowhere, halfway up a mountain, and entirely on your lonesome should things turn seriously south are not quite as laudable or praiseworthy as his words would seem to suggest.

It would be much better and easier if we could just skip all that erring and mistake-making and go straight to fun, right?

10 Hiking Mistakes

We’ve compiled a list of the top ten hiking mistakes and the remedial or preventative measures you can take to avoid them.

1. Overpacking

Our advice to hikers—newbies or not—is to leave anything you don’t need at home.

While there are certainly essential, must-have items that every hiker should pack on any given outing, too many of us are prone to carrying way too much stuff, much of which we will either never get around to using or that merely weighs our pack down unnecessarily without giving us enough in return to justify its place in there.

The cure? Go through your kit list with a fine-toothed (metaphorical) comb, identifying any items that are redundant or fall into the category of “comfort items.”

While we’d be loath to deprive you of your creature comforts, it’s well worth remembering that in most cases, you’ll only get to enjoy those comforts after a hard day on the trails.

By the end of it, you might regret carrying it and view any comfort it may bring as poor compensation and scant consolation for the slog endured to get it there.

2. Poor Navigational Skills/Getting Lost

Many hikers are apt to think that the presence of signs and waymarking excuses them from the need to learn navigational skills with a map and compass.

These hikers, in most cases, are the ones you read about on the news or find fretting at the side of the trail desperately trying to get a signal on their smartphone to access their online GPS.

Despite the extensive signage on many trails around the world, this can often lead to complacency and a false sense of security, even if only subconsciously.

Things are sure to be swell and trouble-free when the skies are clear and the signs or waymarking flashes remain frequent, but what about when the weather takes a turn for the worse?

When does visibility drop to near zero? If snow is covering the waymarkers,? If, for any reason, we are unable to determine which path to choose at a fork in the trail, should you desire to diverge to explore an off-trail feature or landmark,

The cure? Study the use of a map and compass, and practice on local trails until you are confident and able to use triangulation, walking on a bearing, and contouring to navigate safely even when conditions aren’t working in your favor.

3. Overlooking “The Ten Essentials”

Although the list of “Ten Essentials of Hiking” has evolved somewhat since first published in 1974, the gist of the items featured remains much the same to this day, and, as the name suggests, are every bit as essential to the modern-day hiker as they were back in the day.

While many hikers often worry about whether they have forgotten items that they could easily do without, their focus on these non-necessities, along with a hint of overconfidence or simple carelessness, can lead them to overlook these ten essential items.

  • Navigation
  • Shelter
  • Sun protection
  • Insulation/Adequate Clothing
  • Fire
  • Hydration
  • Nutrition
  • Illumination/Lighting
  • First-aid supplies
  • Toolkit

The cure? Familiarize yourself with the list and use it as your go-to guide when packing for any trip in the backcountry.

4. Poor Gear Choices

Many newcomers to hiking rush out and buy themselves a shedload of new gear before really considering exactly how they plan to use it or whether or not it will be suitable for the type of activity they envision getting up to.

The most common culprits are your backpack, footwear, and trekking poles. We’ll start with the entry that’s sure to have raised a few eyebrows.

Trekking poles

Trekking poles, once the exclusive preserve of backpacking octogenarians, are now de rigueur for hikers, trekkers, and mountaineers all over the world.

And yet, many novice hikers assume that choosing to use trekking poles is some admission of fragility or gullible consumption practices, and, as such, opt to pass on a purchase and go pole-free.

They improve posture, lessen the impact on your knees, reduce fatigue, enhance balance, offer stability on more exposed trail sections, and serve as a weapon against wildlife, a tarp, or a makeshift stretcher or splint in the event of a serious injury.

The cure? Discover the numerous advantages of trekking poles, embrace the change, purchase a pair, and lead a fulfilling life.

Backpack

The only thing worse than an ill-fitting backpack are ill-fitting boots (more on them below).

Many newcomers to hiking tend to buy their backpack based on its capacity and brand name alone, but a number of other factors go into making a backpack the right one for your specific body shape and activity type.

The cure? Before purchasing, make sure the pack fits your body shape and torso length, and consider other factors like weight distribution, cushioning, and compartmentalization.

Footwear

While any shoes or boots are sure to become instruments of torture at some point if they are ill-fitting or poorly made, the most common mistake we see on the trails is not so much the fit or quality of the footwear as the choice of footwear.

In short, certain footwear is better suited to certain trails than others, and by choosing unwisely, you could be setting yourself up for a lot of discomfort, injury, or simply weighing your feet down far more than is necessary.

The cure? Before embarking, carefully evaluate the type of trail you’ll be exploring to determine the specific requirements for your “walkers.”

In some cases, those 3-pound hiking boots will be overkill and only increase the risk of premature leg fatigue; in others, your ankle-height trail shoes will leave you with a pair of sodden insoles, scuffed and scraped ankles, and increase the risk of incurring a sprain or serious chill from remnant snow on the trail.

5. Poor Trail Selection

The old English expression “horses for courses” warns us that certain horses are better suited to some tracks than they are to others. The same is true for hikers and their trails.

Many over-enthusiastic newbie hikers prepare for their outing by conducting very cursory research, then blithely set out to tackle their chosen trail, only to discover that the challenge is far beyond their capabilities due to the terrain, distance, or technical expertise required.

The cure? Do your research before choosing your trail to ensure you aren’t biting off more than you can chew.

6. Choosing the Wrong Trail Food

Our bodies are never more in need of nutritious nourishment than when we put them through all the exertion, toil, and tribulations they’re sure to experience on the trail.

While some hikers are apt to think that all those calories we burn while hiking give some leeway for a more lax approach to nutrition, the truth is that such an approach is sure to detract from what our bodies give us in return.

The cure? A simple shift in mindset should address this one.

Once you understand and see for yourself that healthy trail food will work wonders for your performance and how you feel while hiking, ditching the overdose of carbs and comfort foods will be, for most, far more easily done.

7. Not Hydrating Properly

When hiking, drinking enough fluids to replace those lost to sweat and exposure to the elements is essential in order to optimize our performance and stay healthy for the duration of our hike.

But with so many other factors occupying our minds, many of us are apt to forget to take care of this absolutely fundamental obligation.

The cure? For every two hours of hiking, aim to drink at least one liter of water, and increase your intake to a liter and a half or two liters if hiking in particularly hot and sweaty conditions.

To ensure you can get your fill of H20, carry both a go-to water purification system (filter, ultraviolet sterilization pen, chemical formula/pills) and a backup system.

It’s also a beneficial idea to identify reliable water sources on your route before leaving home to get an idea of just how much water you’ll need to carry at each stage.

8. Lack of Rest Stops

Putting in hours after hours on the trail can take its toll on our bodies. In addition to the general fatigue caused by our exertions, after a certain point, our feet, calves, backs, and various other parts of our anatomy can start screaming out for a little let-up in the slog.

At such times, hikers generally react in one of two ways: first, they ignore the aches and pains and soldier on regardless; second, they doff their sacks and boots, maybe hang up their hammock for a bit of a snooze, gorge themselves on whatever goodies they may have in their pack, and while away an hour or two until ready to move on again.

While the second option is not necessarily an issue if you have time on your hands, the first almost invariably leads to injury (most accidents happen when you’re tired) or, at the very least, will seriously diminish your enjoyment of your hike.

However, a happy middle way and a third option exist. It consists of taking short, 5-minute breaks for every hour of hiking, thereby giving your muscles and lungs a breather while also ensuring you don’t cool down so much as to risk a dose of the chills (or even hypothermia) or for your muscles to tighten up.

The cure? Your body will tell you when to take breaks better than maps, trip reports from other hikers, or preconceived notions of how many miles you should cover between rest stops.

9. Poor Route Planning

The vast majority of experienced hikers have done it at some point in their hiking career.

You set off, put in some serious mileage, and relax into their hike only to then happen upon some serious impediment to progress: a snow-bound pass, a section of trail closed for reconstruction, an unfordable river, or a 3,000-foot ascent to get back to the trailhead or terminus when already running very low on “gas.”

The cure? Before heading off, do your research, paying close attention to maps, elevation gains and drops, reading trail descriptions online and in guidebooks, and making sure to check park, wilderness, or recreation area websites for trail updates.

10. Inadequate Clothing

All too many rookie hikers take an “anything goes” approach to how they attire themselves for their first few hikes.

While we wouldn’t want to appear as pushers for the wheel of consumerism that’s spinning largely out of control in the hiking world, the bottom line with regard to the clothing required for hiking is that your every-day  “civvy” dudes just aren’t going to cut it on anything but the gentlest, shortest, and most sun-kissed of trails out there.

Given that some of the ailments that potentially await the inappropriately attired hiker include hypothermia, frostbite, frostnip, blisters, chafing, sunburn, and sunstroke, what you wear while wandering the wilds is, well, kind of important.

The cure? Invest in a robust layering system, gloves, hats, sunhats, and waterproof clothing. Above all, steer clear of cotton or make it waterproof.