With my first overnight backpacking experience in the books, I’m reflecting on some of the misconceptions I had going in. For me, these misconceptions also doubled as great excuses to not get out there… which is why it took me three years from the time my interest in backpacking sparked to actually doing anything about it! If you have these misconceptions about backpacking, don't let them stop you. Once you get started, you'll realize they're simply not true.
Misconception #1: You have to be rich to be a backpacker.
I’ll start with the myth that was most persistent for me, and also perhaps the most untrue: that backpacking requires a huge upfront investment. I blame one too many social media ads featuring priceless vistas and $400 sleeping bags!
As it turns out, I was able to go from zero to “overnight ready” for less than the cost of that $400 sleeping bag—about $370 for my whole setup. And I did it without sacrificing quality, which was important to me, because I intended to make this a long-lasting hobby.
If I knew then what I know now, I could have spent even less. Halfway through gearing up, for example, I learned about REI’s Good and Used section, which carries gently used outdoor gear at up to half off retail. Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, and Patagonia Worn Wear are other spots where you can pick up used gear.
I found a great hiking jacket for $10 at a thrift store, and “borrowed” my dad’s down sleeping from the 1970s. Lots of people are sitting on gear that they barely use, so you could also put a call out on social media for those who may be willing to lend you their gear for your first trip out.
If you prefer to have new gear, you can also shop big box stores for the essentials and spend less than at specialty retailers. Of course, there’s also something to be said for supporting small, independent manufacturers like Daggerfish, whose handcrafted products will stand the test of time and were made by folks who love getting outdoors as much as you do.
The point is: there are options beyond dropping a cool $1000 before going into the wilderness. And, I should say, consider how little you actually need. A single night in the wilderness—especially in the warmer months—really only requires water, a sleep system, a “just in case” kit with basic first aid, a sturdy pack to hold it all, and some decent hiking boots.
Everything else makes the experience better, but isn’t strictly necessary for getting out there for one night.
Misconception #2: Backpacking is an extreme sport.
Here’s another myth: that backpacking must push you to the edge of your physical limits. That anything less than 12 miles a day (or 20 miles a day, or an FKT, or hiking with only a fanny pack of Oreos) is not worth your time. That you have to be deft on your feet, in peak physical condition, and always striving to beat your best time. That cliffside scrambling and hopscotching on rocks over creeks are necessary to get anywhere worth going.
Of course, pushing yourself physically is a big benefit of backpacking. But it doesn’t have to be an extreme sport. You don’t have to hike 20 miles, or 10, or 5. On my first overnight we hiked less than a few miles until we found a creekside spot so perfect, we decided to stop and set up camp right there. We used the energy we saved to chop wood, set up, fish with our backpacking fishing kits, and make dinner.
This is where backpacking and bushcraft find common ground. Both let you savor the wilderness and the fact that you can move your body around in these beautiful places, using your senses to take it all in and be sustained by it.
Whether that means dialing it up to 11 and sleeping like a rock, or taking it easy with a slow, meandering stroll and more time spent at camp. If you’re in the wilderness, living with only what’s on your back, that’s backpacking.
Myth #3: Your first backpacking trip requires the perfect moment.
After waiting years to get started, I then waited months for the “perfect weekend” to go backpacking—one that wasn’t too hot nor too cold, no rain. A weekend with nothing on my mind, no Zoom meetings scheduled, and no other obligations. As you might imagine, that time never came. No one has a moment with nothing on their mind, especially in 2020!
As it turned out, my first overnight happened in early November. I didn’t feel quite ready, exactly. It was going to be a cold night. There was a lot on my mind, and plenty of obligations at home.
In that way, it accidentally did end up being quite perfect. I was able to test myself (and my dad’s 50-year-old sleeping bag) in cold weather and relish being totally disconnected in a stressful time. Sleeping under a tarp in the cold clarified my mind, somehow, and I woke up feeling more resilient.
It’s like they say: if you wait for the right moment… you’ll never do anything. And there are lessons to be learned from landing in an “imperfect” situation. What's more, right now is very often exactly the right moment.
What backpacking myths did you buy into as a beginner? What do you wish you knew starting out? Feel free to share with us!