Most Common Mistakes Thru-hikers Make

I see people on the trail make the same mistakes I made and online I see people asking the same kind of questions I asked when I was preparing for my first thru-hike. There’s two realities here. One, there’s most likely more people in the forum you’re asking your question in that haven’t thru-hiked then have. This means most likely they’re just like you and are looking for all the same answers. Two, I bet the percentage of common mistakes among thru-hikers is higher than that of people who agree on which particular pack is the best or any other piece of gear.

My point is, as a new hiker you’re better off not asking others what gear you should use or buy, but instead ask veteran hikers what mistakes they made.

Only you know what gear is going to work best for you, and the only why you’re going to know is to go out and hike (test gear).  Along with learning what gear works for you, you’ll gain Trail Confidence which goes a long way. I can’t stress enough how important experience is. Put the pride/ego aside and go hiking! Don’t let the trail be your first experience!

Below I listed my mistakes and gave tips on how to possibly avoid them. I also surveyed my former thru-hiking friends/partners and asked them what mistakes they made too. It’s my hope other new hikers and thru-hikers can learn from them and hit the trail better prepared.

Top 5 Most Common Thru-hiker Mistakes

  1. Too Big of a Pack
  2. Poor Gear Choices
  3. Food/Mail drop Planning (too much/too little, selection, lack of nutrition)
  4. The Lack of Physical Conditioning
  5. Poor Planning in General (timing, too much/too little planning)

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Appalachian Trail

Scatman

Big Pack – 

Buying a big pack means on thing, bringing too much gear. I believe it’s human nature to fill a pack, no matter the size. No one hits the trail with a pack that is not full. A big pack not only meant I took too much gear, I was also more tired, and needed more rest days.

Tip –

Buy a smaller pack and select gear that will fit based on smaller pack.

Too Many Clothes –

I made the mistake of taking too many clothes, and the wrong ones. I could have used a better layering system, lighter and more versatile clothes.

Tip –

The key to clothing is knowing yourself. Know your limits and what you can and can’t deal with. Put together a layering system that works for your personal needs and doesn’t have any extra.

Shelter Rat –

When hiking the AT I became a “Shelter Rat”. A Shelter Rat is someone who only sleeps in shelters and doesn’t consider the option of tenting. Being a Shelter Rat greatly limits your mileage options and freedom.

Tip –

Don’t simply look at the Data Book and look where the next shelters are. Base your day around water sources versa shelters. Use the shelters for cooking, socializing, and bathroom breaks.

Not Replacing My Shoes and Socks –

I found out the hard way that if you wear the same shoes and socks for too long the bacteria can build up so back that it will give your feet and ankle a rash. I know replacing them isn’t cheap but your health and comfort should be put first.

Tip –

Consider changing out your footwear and socks at least every 500 miles or sooner. If you can’t at least get new socks. Changing out your footwear not only will help with the bacteria but your feet and ankles will be happier. The EVA foam in shoes needs 24 hours to return to its full elasticity, which means when you hike day after day in the same shoes you don’t give them a chance to recover. Over time your shoes get “packed out” and don’t offer the same comfort.

Using a Pack Cover –

Like a lot of new hikers I listened to the salesman when he told me I needed a pack cover. Pack covers only keep your pack partially dry. The reality is you don’t need to keep your pack dry but what’s inside it. Pack covers are expensive, rip, and blow/tear off. Even with a pack cover my gear in heavy rain would still get wet.

Tip –

A better solution, that is cheaper and actually offers great protection is a trash compactor bag. Put it inside your pack and then all your gear in it. Just make sure to check for holes once in a while.

Switching Gear Mid Trail –

I attempted to try a different stove while on the AT, and the results wasn’t good. I tried an alcohol stove instead of my MSR Superfly. Since I had not cooked with an alcohol stove before I burnt my food, didn’t know the right amount of fuel to use, didn’t know or if it could be put out (I burned my leg, a picnic table and a candy bar trying), and was left questioning my decision. It wasn’t the end of the world but it did mean I was now preoccupied worrying about cooking instead of just enjoying my hiking experience.

I also switched out my sleeping bag to a bag what didn’t have as low of a temperature rating. I made the change in an attempt to lighten my pack weight. The result was I froze my ass off for a week until I could get another warmer bag.

Tip –

Neither of these mistakes were the end of my hike, but they did add unneeded stress. Cutting pack weight can be done on the trail but it’s better done at home, where you can test what works and doesn’t. If you’re going to switch out gear mid trail, be sure it’s a piece of gear you know works for you. This will help eliminate any unwanted issues or stress.

Getting too Attached –

Let’s face it the AT is pretty much one big party. Most hike shelter to shelter, or party to party. At the time I enjoyed this aspect of the AT but looking back at it, I realize just how much it limited my choices. It’s on par with being a Shelter Rat. I let the attachment that formed with my fellow hikers change how I hiked my own hike. With that said I also made friends that I’ve now had for the past 18 years. So it’s a catch 22.

Tip –

Everyone loves to throw around the term Hike Your Own Hike (HYOH). Just know that once you start hiking with others, not all but some of your decisions are no longer just yours. You’re not Hiking Your Own Hike anymore. My only advise is to write down what your hike means to you before you leave. Keep it in a journal or on your phone, then be sure to read what your wrote. If where you’re at at that moment on the trail isn’t inline with what you were hoping to get out of the trail, consider a change. The other option is to really have a heart to heart with yourself and determine if your goal has changed and be okay with where you’re at.

Kate “Burn” Ries

Physical Conditioning –

The AT is rough and the Southern Appalachians are constantly up and down. I wished I’d done more strength training to support my knees.

Tip –

Go on warm up hikes or consider take a strength conditioning class before you hit the trail.

Better Food –

I wish I’d packed better food. 

Tip –

Take the time to research quality food before you go. Not only will it be more enjoyable to eat you will feel better on the trail.

Packaging –

Definitely do not pack detergent in with your mail drop food. My food smelled and tasted like detergent.

Tip –

Take extra care to ensure your laundry detergent is sealed well. Double bag it!

Mark “Squiggy” Baummer

Journaling –

My journal wasn’t consistent and had no structure. The result is now, years later it’s hard to follow and remember the details properly.

Tip –

Before you go find a journaling process that works for you. Make sure it’s not too involved or you might not stick with it and you’ll end up like I did. Once you have a simple one that works for you be diligent in using it everyday.

Too Much Gear –

I brought too many pieces of gear I didn’t need, thus was carrying extra weight I didn’t need.

Tip –

Go on shake down hikes, talk to veterans about what not to bring, and go as light as you can.

Mail Drops –

Using pre-packaged mail drops for food greatly limited me. I ended up being sick of what I packed before I left. Forcing me to race or wait for Post Offices to open and I wasted a lot of money.

Tip –

Consider using a combination of mail drops and buy for your resupply schedule. On the AT it’s easy to resupply as you go. You’ll have more flexibility and enjoy your choices more.

Food Choices –

The foods I ate were not the best. I should have eaten better quality foods like fruits, potatoes, and protein.

Tip –

Spend your time planning what you want to eat and figure out a better diet for when you’re on the trail. You’ll have more energy and be happier.

Matthew “Captain Knatty” Mitchell

Footwear –

Every time I got new shoes my feet went through hell breaking them in while on the trail.

Tip –

Should have worn in MULTIPLE pairs of footwear.

Bad Gear Choices or Uninformed Gear Choices –

I started with a plastic poncho instead of a rain jacket and pants. The issue was that it had ZERO utility. Flimsy, cheap may do alright at a SINGLE rainy outdoor sports event that you’re spectating at, but NOT great for hiking.

I started with MSR Whisperlite. It was weighty, had lots of moving parts and it only boiled water a few minutes faster than a denatured alcohol stove. More time and less weight to boil water. Only utilized in the evenings when I was in camp already.

I got tried of having to retrieve my water bottle every time I wanted a drink.

Tip –

Since you only use your stove in camp, the extra time need to boil water with a alcohol stove isn’t much of an issue. Why carry the extra weight of other stoves all day, for an item you only use in camp.

Hands free hydration would have been a great option. Water bladder FTW.

You can either be comfortable in camp or while hiking. All gear choices should reflect your preference.
Too Much Gear –

I brought at least 15 lbs. of unnecessary and heavy gear with me to start. (too many clothing items, a trowel, First-Aid Kit)

Tip –

Each item in your pack should either have multiple uses, utility or bring you joy. I hiked with a whole set of cotton clothes for town and utilized a “Bounce Box” as a portable locker system. (A Bounce Box is a box you put items like town clowns, nail clippers, maps, and other items you don’t want to carry every mile but need when you get to town or at some other point in the trail.)

Lack of Gear –

Didn’t have hiking poles at start.

Tip –

Buying hiking poles was the best purchase I made along the way. They save your knees on the downhills, add stability in the slick rain, and extra grip on the uphills.

Time Management –

Time. This is a weird one. I wish I had more flexibility on end time. Literally ever decision was based on the “deadline” of when I had to stop and complete my hike.

Tip –

Allocate MORE time than you think it’ll take. It allows you to start slow or slow down and relish the end.

Final Words:

Get your 10 miles in before lunch. Rest of your day is “gravy mikes”.  Stretch, stretch stretch. Take care of your body at night in camp and in morning when breaking camp.

Hike your own hike!!! Each day you should be stoked to be outside and walking. Do it your way, have fun with it. The AT was the most selfish endeavor I’ve ever experienced. The mere fact alone should bring delight and joy. Know there will be days where you’re sore, wet hungry and tired. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other and you’ll be amazed at how one can transcend those feelings.

Appalachian Trail Day 135 - Carlo Col - Baldplate Shelter

Jonas “Speedy” Emery

Independence –

I started out as the third wheel of a hiking trio, camping together every night and sharing communal gear to lighten our individual loads.It was fun for a week and then became very annoying.

Tip –

Unless you’re in a happily co-dependent romantic partnership, be an independent hiking unit.You may be setting out with a hiking buddy you plan on camping with every night the entire way.But you won’t.And even if you do, you’ll appreciate having your own complete setup.You’ll get up at different times, pack at different rates, stop for lunch at different places, have different dish cleanup habits, etc. etc.Share and share alike, but set yourself up to be an independent unit from the get go.

Over Planning –

I over planned.With few exceptions, resupplying food was easier than I anticipated.We dehydrated and planned and packed meals ahead of time and had our folks ship them to every post office from Georgia through Tennessee.After one week I was sick of the meals we made and they tied us to hitting post offices during their open hours.A large part of the joy of the trail for me ended up being how untied to a schedule and extremely flexible in all things I could be out there.Relying on the mail was a pain in the ass for me. It was also a pain in the ass for our folks to ship all that stuff.

Tip –

An occasional post office drop box/care package is nice, but don’t plan your whole trip in advance. Go have an adventure.

Too Big of a Pack –

I started with too large a backpack.I think it was 90L!It wasn’t completely full, but it was ridiculously huge nonetheless and weighed ~7 lbs on its own unloaded.I did fairly well with paring weight and carefully selecting gear, but the trouble with extra space is that you tend to find a way to fill it.

Tip –

Buy a smaller pack so you won’t be able to bring too much unwanted gear. Your body will be happier and they’ll be less stress on the trail trying to switch it or that extra gear out.

Wrong Gear Choices – 

My sleeping bag wasn’t warm enough when I started in late February. It was an old synthetic fill 15 degree bag that should’ve been retired. I was frugal and didn’t want to spring for a new bag. But when the thermometer hit 10 degrees one freezing night in March, I ended up sleeping with every piece of clothing and rain gear I owned, inside my oversized backpack! I was miserable.

I wish I’d had simple waterproof over mitts in the cold spring rains. My hands still hurt just thinking about it.

Tip –

I’d have been better off starting with a new winter bag and then switching to a summer bag in May.

Final Words:

Sure, by all means optimize your gear a bit before you go, and the old adage “ounces make pounds and pounds hurt” is true, but don’t stress about it. You’ll change it along the way. Make sure your basics are covered and that you aren’t carrying 10 pounds of ridiculous stuff—(like an aluminum U-dig it trowel!). But the gear is not the point of the trail, it merely exists to facilitate your experience of the trail. So get your nose out of your pack as soon as you can. Learn ahead of time the tree species you’ll be passing, or the spring wildflowers to look for, or some damned bird calls or something. Or the names and territories of the tribes who used to live in the land you’ll be walking through. Or some good ol ‘Murican history. It’ll improve your experience more than shedding 1/2 an extra pound out of your pack.

This last one isn’t gear related at all. My dad and brother met me at Katahdin and hiked it with me. It was wonderful to be able to see them and to share the end of this enormous experience with them and I certainly don’t regret having them there with me and driving home with them. But I also would have enjoyed finishing it with just my trial buddies and making my own way home. It may seem silly, but I wonder if finishing it that way and then bussing/hitching/training it back home on my own would have helped me more slowly absorb the end of the trail and help with the inevitable shock of re-entry.

You’ll be living on the trail for months, so have fun making a life for yourself out there.

Pacific Crest Trail

Scatman

Mentally Limiting Oneself –

After hiking the AT where shorter days are the norm, I had it in my mind that 20 miles was a long day. I limited my ability to do big miles.

Tip –

Let your body decide how far you can hike, not your mind. Your body can always do more than your mind thinks it can. Shoot for bigger miles, and if you don’t make them all you’ll probably still go further than if you try to predetermine how far you think you can go.

Feet Swell –

I didn’t anticipate my feet swelling because of the desert heat. The result was shoes began to small.

Tip –

Anticipate your feet swelling and buy your shoes at least a half size bigger than normal.

Tarp Pitching Options –

I used a tarp for the first 700+ miles but I didn’t know multiple pitching options. The result was in adverse conditions I wasn’t able to adjust it’s set up to properly protect myself.

Tip –

Next time I would learn multiple pitching options and also practice setting it up in the wild.

Misjudging the Weather and Terrain –

When I left Kennedy Meadows I left thinking the Sierra weren’t going to be that cold after low snow year. I also didn’t expect the desert to be so mountainous.

Tip –

Do your research. Look at previous years average temperatures and snow levels. Study your maps, know the terrain you’ll be hiking in.

Marvin Cassler

@Maverik_azviking

Food/Mail Drops-

My mistake I made was sending resupply boxes to every single town. Ended up giving away most of my food because I eventually got sick of it.

Tip –

My recommendation would be to send boxes but supplement with local grocery stores. Send main meals, hard to find items etc., and buy the rest at stores. I made the mistake of sending everything thinking I could save money.

Stephanie “Breaker” McColaugh

@hiker_humor

Shoes/Socks –  

I started my thru hike with Soloman Speedcross 4 trail runners, women’s size 9.5
with Darn Tough socks. A week later, I had to swap to Altra Lone Peaks, men’s size 11. Despite what the REI sales rep told me (and my better judgement/ online thru hiking community input), I didn’t size up. This led to foot cramps and a bumper crop of blisters.

Tip – 

Within a week of switching to shoes which gave my feet room to spread, and using Injinji toe socks, my blisters healed and didn’t return. I wasn’t in love with the cushioning or the tread on the Altras, so eventually I tried the Solomans again (sized up), but I had the same issues as before. There is a reason Altras are the official footprint of the PCT- they don’t hurt…and when you’re walking 2,650 miles, that’s about all you can ask from a shoe.

Broken Gear – 

When I was planning the financial aspect of my thru hike- I did not adequately consider the cost of gear replacement. Granted, my trail name “Breaker” came to be once I had officially broken every piece of gear I started with, so I had a worse time with this issue than most.

Tip –

That said, when looking at gear, I would make customer service and warranties a priority when making your decision. When I say do your research, I don’t mean go off of the PCT 2019 FB page…I mean do some digging on what customers have said regarding durability, customer service response times, return shipping, fixes vs replacement, etc….and keep in mind that when something breaks- you either need to hike to the next town with broken gear and hope the replacement is there in time, or spend money staying in town waiting for a replacement. All of this adds up significantly, and if you’re not careful jeopardize your ability to finish your hike.

Snow Safety –

Please for the love of Zeus, take a snow safety class if you don’t already know how to self-arrest. 2017 was a low snow year, but I entered the Sierras in May, and hit a lot of snow. My tramily’s game plan was to practice self-arresting the first place we saw snow- but that ended up being at 3:00AM on Mt. Whitney, the day after a snow storm. The trail was completely covered, there were no footprints, and my buddy slipped while cutting steps. By some miracle of friction, he stopped, but not after sliding a good 15 feet down an ice chute and nearly over the edge. Something similar happened to me coming down Mather, after I had practiced self-arresting.

Tip –

The point is, it’s easy to become cavalier and feel invincible, but people die hiking the PCT every year and you are not exempt from that possibility. I was an idiot and I got lucky, but my Floridian butt should have taken myself to Ned Tibbits snow safety course (or something similar) and practiced self-arresting until I could do it reflexively and without hesitation.

Food Planning –

The eternal optimist, I told myself I was going to be sooo healthy when I hiked the PCT. So, I ordered a ton of dehydrated fruits, vegetables and beans online (after trying to dehydrate salmon at home and exchanging some strong words with my parents about the ensuing stench). After a week of cold soaking dehydrated carrots, instant rice and tuna…I was ready to try photosynthesizing before I endured another meal. I hated my food (besides the beans), I wasn’t eating enough, and I felt terrible…and I still had a bunch of resupply boxes with the same things at home.

Tip –

Understand and accept that you turn into a trash raccoon on the trail. To get enough calories and not carry an obscene amount of weight, you will eat so much junk food that if you died on trail your body probably wouldn’t decompose. Diet induced taxidermy…neato. Just embrace it. At no other point in your adult life will you get to eat 4,000 calories a day of garbage and still lose weight. Just try to shove some nutritious food down your gullet in town.

Zeros –

Before hiking the PCT, I had never been backpacking, so I understood that for my body to cope, I was going to have to ease into things and rest as needed. While I still do believe that resting is a critical part of avoiding injury, and I’m glad to say I was injury free all trail, I definitely justified many extra zeros using that excuse. While I believe that town days are an important aspect of the PCT, both for recovery and social purposes, that ish adds up! Not just financially. By the end of the trail, I had taken OVER A MONTH of zeros. YIKES. While I relished every shower and night in bed (except the night I got bed-bugs), I certainly regretted my excess once I hit Washington and had a month straight of rain.

Tip –

I would have rather cut back on my double zeros or skipped the week off for PCT Days and had a more comfortable and scenic last few hundred miles. Long story long, listen to your body, but don’t milk it. Nearoing in and out of town is a good way to get the best of both worlds.

Continental Divide Trail

Scatman

No Plan for High Snow Levels –

I started my CDT thru-hike without having a plan if I ran into heavy snow. I had most of the right gear (an ice axe and crampons), but didn’t have a free standing tent, and hadn’t researched alternate routes for high snow areas (San Juan’s).

Tip –

Before you leave do some research of alternate routes, so if you choose to you can avoid deep snow pack. If you plan to forge ahead have snow friendly gear ready at home. Free standing tent, ice axe, crampons, warm footwear, etc.

Mentally Limiting Oneself –

Just like on the PCT, I limited myself mentally in regards to how many miles I was capable of.

Tip –

Let your body decide your mileage not your head.

Brandon “Toast” Vehrs

Gear Choices / Timing –

I would say my biggest prep mistake was not sending enough cold weather gear to the right place, not having enough extra cold weather gear in a box at home, or not buying more. I was unprepared for the late season snow we got. My feet were cold and wet for at least a week. And I could have used my spikes one town earlier. I just sent them with the ice axe to where everyone says to send it.

Tip –

For something as perilous as the CDT (someone did die our year) make sure you know what you are getting into. Don’t expect to be light all the time, carry warm gear and traction wherever there is a chance of needing it. Better safe than dead. Last summer I hiked the GDT and I started by re-hiking most of Glacier NP. The rangers told me the trail I wanted was not safe to hike but also not closed. There were three patches of snow in June that were getting all day shade and hard as hell. It took me 15 minutes to kick step through one. Another hiker I met going south on the CDT slipped off and hurt himself pretty bad.

Genny Uhl

Physical Conditioning –

It would have been ideal to have not off-the-couched it and gone into the hike with a good level of fitness.

Tip – 

I think in the future – I would do some weight training leading up to a thru hike and run regularly – just having a good level of fitness would make the transition a bit smoother. 

Food/Mail Drops –

Food – about 1/3 of our resupply was mailed. Wouldn’t change that, however, we packaged a bunch of stuff (gorp esp) ahead of time that got super stale . . . it was also really redundant.

Tip – 

In regard to food . . . just diversify a bit more – not pack the same thing in every resupply box. : )

Sterling Deck

HYOH – 

So, biggest mistake by far for me was paying too much attention to what others were doing (via social media, etc.) and then carrying more than I needed. So, in other words, I would say thinking that you need something because other people are touting its importance or telling you that they are using it and it works for them… when you have not used it to see for yourself. Of course, this is largely based on our own human survival instincts and a desire to be comfortable – in which we tend to mentally justify the need for stuff, especially when others are saying they use it (shared consumerism/materialism) – that carries over into our daily lives as well, I think everyone can agree on that.

Tip – 

Knowing what I know now, I would tell new hikers to do multiple short hikes of 5-10 days over the kind of terrain they plan to do a long hike… and use the gear that they enjoy using and that works for them. This will likely correct the problem… once a hiker knows what gear is critical to success and what is not. Also, somewhat on the same topic – the need to test gear out before using for a long period. Again, this would likely be solved on a short hike of 5-10 days. But, then again, if you do a “test” hike and never get rained on… then some gear is not being fully tested. We MUST test our gear and have confidence in it.

Overall, it’s important for people to be mentally prepared and have confidence in their gear and abilities. This all pans out on test hikes or even setting up in the backyard for a night when it’s going to rain. Yes, it is great for people to share data on social media but don’t let if influence decisions without fully testing it on our own. This really all comes back to… wait for it… “hike your own hike.” It is the golden rule of long distance hiking for a reason.

Marvin Cassler

Recheck your addresses before you have resupply boxes sent. – 

I had a new pair of shoes accidentally sent to Grants instead of Pie Town after hiking 5 days from Doc Campbell’s to Pie Town. Shoes were destroyed from walking three days in the Gila River. I had the address correct, except had the Grants zip code instead of Pie Town Zip Code written on the box.

Tip – 

Double and triple check the addresses you leave for the people shipping your items. You don’t want them to have to worry there wrong and you really want to get your stuff!

Passion Profile - Marvin Cassler

Summary

Mistakes happen but not all of them need to. There’s no one secret recipe to how one should thru-hike. The bottom line is that most of your possible mistakes have been done before by those coming before you. Learn from them and avoid the same mistakes yourself.

The single best thing you can do is to truly know yourself. Knowing what you want, how you deal with situations and how your effected by conditions is key to hiking or life in general. If you don’t know the above your decisions will be based on poor information leading to mistakes.  The more you know about yourself and the trail you’re doing, the better your decisions will be.

MORE RESOURCES

Read these next or checkout the main resource page.

Gear lists from the AT, PCT and CDT; Pros & Cons; Things I’d do different; and Tips.

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Scott Richardson - Baker Pass - Shakedown Hike
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