In the summer of 2019, we went on our first backpacking trip (with another couple) in the Porcupine Mountains (State Park in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan). Experiencing nature in this serene setting was great for the soul and very rewarding. We gained a sense of accomplishment by overcoming different challenges we encountered while backpacking for the first time, as well as the meditative benefits from continuously hiking in nature. We had an awesome first backpacking adventure and made memories that will last a lifetime, but we definitely made some rookie mistakes. Here are some things you can learn from our first backpacking trip.
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1. Do NOT Underestimate Mileage on your First Backpacking Trip
On our 48 hour trip, we ended up hiking 11-12 miles more than we had planned. THAT IS A LOT–especially when you are carrying a 30 lb+ backpack. We had planned to hike about 2-4 miles less each day. We did not take into account the mileage of the connecting trails and at one point, we accidentally took a wrong turn and hiked 1.5 miles in the wrong direction (3 miles extra total). This brings me to our next two points…
2. Independent Verification with turns on the trail and planning
Everytime you take a turn on the trail, have each person in your group independently verify that you are turning in the right direction. When we took our wrong turn on the trail, everyone in the group trusted that the one person looking at the map was directing us correctly. Rookie mistake.
After that incident, everyone looked at the map EVERY time we came to a fork in the trail so that each of us was independently verifying that we were going in the right direction. Also, only one person in the group planned our trip route and without independent verification, it was not caught that we had not taken into account the connecting trails in our mileage plans until we were already hiking.
3. Do NOT try to hike as many miles as possible each day on your first backpacking trip. Plan some flex-time.
We hiked 11-12 miles the first day, 13 miles the next day and 7 miles the last day. We’d recommend planning to hike about 6 miles per day, especially if this is your first trip. This will allow you time to relax at the campsite and provides extra time in case you do take a wrong turn. The first day, when we took a wrong turn, we were hiking right until the sun was setting. We were literally racing against sunset to make it to our campsite and thankfully, we made it. Setting up camp/cooking in the dark is not the easiest activity and we wouldn’t recommend it (but it does make for a better story and a very memorable experience).
4. Bring extra food on your first backpacking trip
Since we hiked about 12 miles more than expected, we needed more food than we had anticipated. Each mile you hike while backpacking, you burn somewhere between about 100-300 calories. That means, at minimum, we needed 4800 more calories worth of food for the group than what we had anticipated. By the end of the trip, we were running out of food. We’d recommend bringing extra food, something dense in calories (such as extra trail mix or nuts) just in case you do end up needing more fuel.
5. Bring a reliable and fast water filter. Test it out before you go. Bring iodine purifying tablets or a LifeStraw in case your filter stops working.
Our water filter, the Sawyer Squeeze, was terrible–and that is putting it generously. This filter was so slow and difficult to use. Basically, to use this filter, you filled the bag of the filter up with water and then attached it to the filter cap. You then squeeze the water through the filter cap but for minutes of squeezing, you might only get a drop or two of water. Very frustrating and unsatisfying.
Theoretically, this filter should have worked better than this but we would recommend using a pump filter instead. There are many options on the market and outdoor stores have a great selection. We recommend using the MiniWorks EX Water Filter. Pump filters like this one are more expensive than the squeeze filters but they are also much more reliable and user friendly. Think about it though, WATER IS LIFE and without water, you die, so it’s definitely worth the extra money. Also, bring iodine purifying tablets or LifeStraw just in case something happens to your filter. Thankfully, we had iodine tablets and were able to use these to treat our water bottles and have ample water to drink.
6. Map out where you will have access to water on your route
On our route, we thought we were going to have access to clean water at Lake of the Clouds (a tourist spot that you can drive up to) but to our surprise, we did not. Because we thought we were going to have access to clean water here, we did not completely fill up on unfiltered water at our campsite the night prior (especially with how difficult our filter was to use). The next time we encountered unfiltered water next was about 5 miles later and at this point, we had nearly run out of water. Again, WATER IS LIFE. Fill up on water when you can and research your route beforehand to find out when you will have access to water (both clean and unfiltered).
7. Don’t bring things you really don’t need
Everything extra you bring is extra weight you have to carry on your back. We paired down what we were bringing by laying out all of our gear prior to the trip and packing our bags together. This helped ensure we were not bringing excess since we could work together as a team to bring different items.
For example, only one of us needed to bring a cookstove and we could split up our food between the four of our packs. The only extra items we brought that were not needed were books. We thought we were going to have time to relax at the campsites and read, but in reality, we spent most of the day hiking. We find it very comical in retrospect that we thought we were going to have time or energy to read.
8. Bring a compact sleeping bag and other compact gear
Our friends, Kellie and Nick, thankfully, let us borrow a lot of their compact items and these items really helped conserve space as well as weight in our bags. We’d highly recommend investing in these compact items. Had we brought our normal sleeping bags, almost all of our backpacks would have been full of just those.
9. Bring quality, sweat wicking clothes
Hiking 30 + miles in 48 hours will definitely give you blisters if your socks don’t fit and you learn very quickly if your gear is subpar. Make sure you have quality socks and clothes. Natalie wore a cotton shirt the first day and after it rained, she started to get an abrasion of her neck/shoulder from her backpack and shirt rubbing against it. When she changed into a moisture wicking shirt, the problem was solved but this abrasion was uncomfortable the whole trip. Also, the moment you start to feel any rubbing on your toes, change your socks. Blisters do not bode well for a trip where hiking is your mode of transportation.
10. Have an exit plan (just in case something goes awry)
We had numerous exit plans that thankfully we did not have to use. If someone rolls an ankle and can’t walk or someone gets seriously injured or ill, you want to be able to get help and know where to get it. Map out alternate exit routes to shorten your trip and where you can exit to main roads if necessary. Better to be prepared.
11. Stay at a remote campsite that can only be accessed by hiking
These remote campsites we stayed at were SO cool. Especially our campsite right along the Lake Superior shoreline. This is something we definitely did right. It was very serene to be out on the shoreline by ourselves.
12. Have cold beer (or beverage of choice) and snacks waiting in the car for when you are done backpacking for the first time
Just trust us–you’ll have earned these and will be SO happy to have them. Our friend Kellie had planned for snacks to be waiting for us in the car and we have never been more excited to see snacks. Our friend Nick nearly proposed to Kellie (again) because of these snacks. Backpacking in general makes you more grateful for the little things and these simple snacks are a great example of that.
13. ENJOY YOUR FIRST BACKPACKING TRIP
Experiencing nature that has limited human interaction is quite serene. The methodical nature of hiking allows for a natural meditation in a calming environment. “Roughing it” also gives you a greater appreciation for the little comforts in life, such clean water.
We hope this helps you plan your first backpacking trip. Learn from our rookie mistakes and from the things we did right. Backpacking is a great way to escape the hustle and bustle of the day to day grind and gain gratitude for the conveniences we are afforded in modern day life.
Looking to visit the Upper Peninsula of Michigan? See our Complete What to do Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Guide for more information.
Do you have any other first-time backpacking tips? Anything you’d add to our guide on a first-time backpacking trip? We’d love to hear your feedback. Please leave us a comment.
And remember, Always Have A Trip Planned!
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