I purchased my final piece of gear, my Osprey backpack, and set out on my first overnight trip in April of 2017. It was a terrible trip! There was no water to be found and temperatures were unseasonably hot. I got bit by a tick after digging my first ever cat-hole. Then it stormed all night, I lay in my sleeping bag shaking in fear as thunder and lightning boomed around me and trees swayed in the strong winds. After surviving the night I reviewed my map and found the quickest route back to my car, desperate for water and a nap.
Learning in Missouri.
I continued to go on backpacking trips, always 1 or 2 nights at a time, to figure out what gear worked for me and what items I would need to change before taking on such a large goal. I purchased a new lightweight tent that used my trekking poles to set up. I also bought new trekking poles to go with my tent, my original pair didn’t feel very comfortable in my hands. I tried various pairs of socks finally deciding on Darn Tough, expensive but comfy. I went through a half dozen different shirts to find one that didn’t chafe my armpits and that wicked moisture well. I practiced hanging a bear bag over and over until I was sure my food would be far out of reach. I also tried a variety of foods and found that my appetite actually decreased with the intense exercise. By the time I set foot on the AT in June of 2018 I was ready, the next month would take me on the adventure of a lifetime.
Waking up in Hawn State Park, Missouri.
When it comes to gear there are several factors that you need to consider about each piece and gear is very personal. What works for one person will not work for another and I have yet to meet 2 hikers with identical gear. The following points can help you to decide what gear to try out, but remember practice is what makes it better:
Is it functional?
Does the piece of gear work for you based on your needs?
When backpacking every single piece of gear that you carry must serve a purpose (and sometimes more than one, ideally). Having functional gear is of utmost importance, in some cases it could be a matter of survival.
Another example that comes to mind is your rain gear. You need to choose something that is actually going to keep you adequately dry. There is no sense in carrying a rain suit that leaks the moment it starts to drizzle.
Items that are functional for me may not be functional for you. For example, when I cook I prefer to rehydrate foods by just adding boiling water. I opted for a DIY alcohol stove as a lightweight option. I would add about an ounce of denatured alcohol and light it, within a couple of minutes I had boiling water ready to use. If you prefer to cook your meals, this option likely will not work for you because you cannot control the flame, it is full blast or nothing. You may find that a canister stove such as the MSR Pocket Rocket is a better option.
Bell Mountain Wilderness, Missouri.
Is it comfortable?
Does the piece of gear feel good?
Comfort is a very important factor out on the trail. You want to be able to enjoy yourself on your trip, if you are carrying the wrong gear this will be impossible. Having comfortable gear could mean the difference of enjoying your trip or hanging up your boots and never venturing out again.
My first backpacking tent.
Is the gear usable?
Do you have the skills to use the piece of gear properly?
Finally you should consider if you can appropriately use your gear. There is no point in carrying gear that you don’t know how to use properly. Be sure to do your research before you are out in the woods and practice at home if possible.
It is also useful to know how to use pieces of gear like your stove before you are miles away from home. Be sure that you have the correct type of fuel and know how it works with your stove. Most of us can recall the scene in “Wild” where Cheryl attempts to use gasoline in her white gas stove, you do not want to be in that position because you failed to practice ahead of time.
First backpacking trip, in Sand Ridge State Forest, Illinois.
Before venturing out on your first backpacking trip there are some skills you will want to practice at home. Some of these skills will make things more convenient, whereas some may save your life.
Before your first trip take time to familiarize yourself with basic first aid techniques. Learn how to care for cuts, lacerations, broken or dislocated limbs, and bites and stings. Some people opt to take wilderness first aid courses which are a great option. Most people remember to pack a first aid kit before they go backpacking, but that kit is not very helpful if you don’t know how to use the components of it.
My first night out in the woods I had to hang up my food before bed, I wasn’t in bear country but I didn’t want any critters eating my snacks. I had a basic understanding of how to hang my bag but I had never tried it out. I ended up spending nearly an hour trying to find a good tree, attempting to throw the rope up over a branch, and then suspending my heavy bag in the air. Had I practiced this at home I am certain I would have had an easier time.