How to Avoid a Bad Backpacking Trip
You never want a backpacking trip to go poorly! Learn from Camping & Hiking Expert Hannah K.'s mistakes and review how to prepare for a successful trip.
If you have read any of my previous stories about backpacking trips or wild mountain stories, you know that I don’t always have the best of luck with things going smoothly (i.e. my first ever backpacking experience or that time I climbed a mountain with a broken foot). Even though I have loads more experience and I like to think I know what I’m doing, these next few paragraphs will prove that I am not as cool as I think I am and there’s a lot of preparation work to do in order to have a successful backpacking trip.
September 2021: I flew to Salt Lake City, Utah to visit two good friends and do a quick overnight backpacking trip. I bought my tickets a week before I left and I asked my friends if I could come after I bought the plane tickets—I recommend doing those two things in the opposite order.
I was going to be there for two nights. One night we would spend in the city and the next morning we would pack up the car and drive an hour to the Island Lake Trailhead, an 8.4-mile out-and-back trail with stunning lake views and just over 1,000 feet of elevation gain. It was the perfect trail for our short amount of time. 4 miles into camp and 4 miles out back to the car where we would head straight to the airport to drop me off.
The trail is perfect for those wanting to backpack in warmer months because there are plenty of opportunities to take a dip into the lakes. You pass by one every twenty minutes! Don’t forget the iodine tabs if you plan on refilling.
The first thing that went wrong is that I did not know the trail or specs of the trail before we started hiking—I had let my friends plan and choose the trail because they knew the area best. That may be seemingly innocent, however, not knowing the trail can be dangerous. What is the water situation? What animals live in the area? How strenuous will it be and how will that affect what I bring? These questions can all be answered when you know where you are going, what the trail is like, and how long you will be in the backcountry.
On my first day in Utah, my host and friend, Emily, fell and slightly twisted her ankle. After the initial shock of it, she laughed it off and claimed to be fine. I reminded her that we could also drive and car-camp instead of backpacking but she resisted. Keep in mind that backpacking is a very strenuous activity and injuries should not be taken lightly. But Emily has a very high tolerance for pain so we hiked on the following morning.
Flying dictated a lot of what I planned on bringing with me. For instance, I decided not to bring my stove but instead use my friends’. I did not want to risk any TSA agent saying my tiny stove was not allowed and have them either throw it away or have the need to check my bag. I also did not bring heavier gear that took up space in my backpack so I did not have to check a bag. This was the second mistake I made. By not bringing everything I could possibly need and instead of assuming my friends would have it covered, I became reliant and no longer independent. In the wild, the trick to being safe is being as independent as possible and understanding how to use your gear. By using new gear and not having my own, I did not follow that rule.
Regardless, we marched on. There was no rush. The weather was perfect. We were having a blast. The sun was out but not too hot. We stopped at many lakes and streams along the way to fill up our water bottles and filter them or to snack or to add some sunscreen (which I also did not bring any of my own—thankfully no person was sunburned in the process).
We got to our campsite at 4 pm, and as the sun set, temperatures started to drop. We took a quick dip in the lake, dried off, and put on our warmer layers. We set up our tents next to each other and went to make some dinner. This is when the next disaster came.
Emily decided to look for some wood and make dinner a bit later. She went off by herself (never let someone go off by themselves) and I heard a scream. I ran to find her on the floor holding her ankle. She decided to jump off a rock onto another boulder. Sad to say she did not stick the landing. I asked if she broke her ankle and through tears and some chuckles, she responded “probably not but maybe.”
Here is where my other friend, Nina, saves the day! She had Advil and trekking poles—just what Emily needed to hike out. I, of course, had neither of those items. Thankfully, we were also camping 200 feet away (as per regulations) from a beautiful, very cold lake. We helped Emily hobble on down to the lake and ice her ankle for 15 minutes. By the time she was back, I had made her dinner and grabbed some soft materials to rest her foot on.
We cleaned up camp and settled Emily in her tent while Nina and I went to hang our bear bags. I’m a canister person, I think they are safer and easier to use. In California, canisters are generally required. But because I chose not to bring mine, I suffered through the bear hang process. I am not a person who throws things very well, and neither was Nina. I kid you not when I say that this took us 35 minutes to get the bear bag 50 feet up in the air and far from camp. It was now pitch black and I could not find my headlamp in my pack. Fourth major mistake. I swear I packed it, but where was it?
We got back to the tent and Emily quickly told us that she “forgot to mention that the ranger I called earlier told me that a storm is coming tomorrow morning. We need to wake up early to hike out before the rain and winds.” Another great disaster is bad communication.
So we set our alarms for 4 am. The night was filled with scary sounds. All night we heard something sniffing our tents. It could have been deer or coyotes or perhaps bears. It sounded big just from the large sniffs. We tried not to move or breathe and wait for them to pass. We made sure all smelly objects (toothpaste, deodorant, food, etc.) were put into the bear bag. Did we forget anything though? Nina and I laid still as possible. If that was not scary enough, we also heard animals continuously walk in and walk out of the lake—traumatizing me and my friends.
The next morning, with very few minutes of sleep, we reluctantly got out of our warm sleeping bags, got dressed, and packed up camp. I suggested Emily wrap her ankle in the towel she brought and take more Advil. Nina let Emily use her trekking poles to hike out. The first few hours of hiking in the dark were nerve-wracking. I finally found my headlamp and thought it would be best if I hike in front, Emily in the middle, and Nina in the back. All so we could catch Emily if she fell, but she never did.
At one point Emily stopped in her tracks and hushed us. We turned to face her. She didn’t move for thirty seconds and told us to “remind her about something when we got to the car.” We walked on.
Despite waking up early and hiking quickly, we did not miss the storm. And mistake number-I-can’t-keep-track-anymore is my lack of rain gear. I was living in Los Angeles. I don’t need rain gear. I didn’t think to bring it with me since September in Los Angeles is still summer. I only had my very expensive and very nice down Cotopaxi puffy that shouldn’t get wet. But there I was, hiking in the rain in my puffy (it was fine, thankfully).
Finally, we made it to the car, ate some breakfast, and warmed up, and I made it to the airport in time for my flight. It was a beautiful trail that joins the list of my favorite backpacking trails, and I learned a lot from my mistakes!
Remember when Emily asked us to remind her of something? It turns out when we were hiking out in the dark, she saw two big eyes following us. She thought it was a bear. She didn’t want to tell us in case we freaked out and did something stupid (i.e. quickly run away). In general, I believe it is best to spread this kind of news, but in the end, it all worked out. No bear attacks. Remember: communication is key!
And after an x-ray, it turned out Emily only sprained her ankle!
Morals of the Story
1. Be prepared to save yourself
Be independent and don’t rely on other people to keep you alive. Don’t be that one person who always needs something from someone else on your trip.
I did not have my own stove. I did not have Advil or other simple first aid supplies besides band-aids and some duct tape. I did not bring a rain jacket. There was a lot missing because I assumed my friends would have it and I wanted to have a smaller backpack for the plane ride. For future plans where I fly to the trailhead, I will make different decisions and bring everything and anything I could need.
2. Bring bear spray. Always
Although we did not come face to face with a bear, it is possible that a situation where bear spray was needed could have occurred. Bring the bear spray.
3. Bring your rain jacket
Mountain weather is unpredictable. Be prepared for rain in summer.
I never considered bringing my rain jacket, but mountain weather can change drastically within minutes and a rain jacket would have kept me a lot happier. Similarly, a rainfly for your backpack (if you do not have a waterproof backpack) is another handy piece of fabric.
4. Bring everything you could possibly need
Including ankle/wrist/knee wraps, but also, don’t “parkour” like my friend Emily.
Backpacking can on its own be dangerous and injuries are more likely to occur than when you’re walking down the street. However, there is no need to take added risks by jumping off big boulders or across ledges. While it is fun, maybe avoid these situations when you are 4 miles and an hour drive from the nearest town.
5. Eat more than you think you need
We burn a lot of calories hiking/backpacking. Your trip will be a lot nicer if you are not hungry. I was hungry all night and that makes sleeping a lot harder. If you are like me and already find falling asleep outside difficult from discomfort or excitement about your surroundings, then being hungry can make the night a lot worse. You will also be a lot colder. Bring an extra day’s worth of food just in case you don’t pack enough or spend longer on the trail than you originally planned for.
6. Learn from your mistakes and don’t make them again
Have any questions? Reach out to a Camping & Hiking Expert here on Curated to talk to them about planning your next backpacking trip.