Do you find camping or backpacking frustrating?
Maybe it’s because you’re doing something wrong.
But don’t worry, everyone does something wrong. All that matters is your willingness to change. You want to get better at camping.
Get the key parts right and you’re in for an enjoyable and safe camping trip.
But to make that happen, you need to improve your camping skills. And what better way to learn from campers who have already learned the hard way?
So I searched the Internet for people who know their stuff about camping. I asked them to answer just one question:
“What’s the biggest mistake you made when you started camping?”
I collected their confessions and wrapped them up with actionable steps so you know exactly how to avoid these mistakes.
Let’s start with Megan & Michael’s story.
Table of Contents
Megan & Michael From Fresh Off The Grid
I would say that our biggest mistake when we were getting started camping was not using a checklist when packing our gear before heading out to the campsite.
By relying only on memory, we often forgot an item or two. Sometimes it was something small, like a spatula or a wine opener, but one time, we drove an hour and a half to our campsite up in the mountains, only to discover we had both forgotten to pack our sleeping bags!
Unfortunately, the nighttime temperatures were going to be near freezing so we had no option but to turn around and go home. It was too late in the day to drive back to the site, so we had to abandon the trip altogether.
After that experience, we put together a camping gear checklist that we now use on every camping trip. It’s helped immensely and we haven’t forgotten anything since!
I’m sure Megan & Michael laugh about this experience these days. In their case it was an unfortunate mistake, but imagine forgetting your sleeping bag on a backpacking trip where it’ll freeze at night…
So Megan is absolutely right: make your own checklist. Start with an online checklist and write down what you really need to be prepared on any camping trip. Then scrap the optional items you don’t want to take with you.
Here are my favorite online checklists:
Shell From Camping With Style
I would say a cheap sleeping bag and air mattress were my biggest early camping fails.
I spent years freezing cold at night when camping and then waking up sore and achy after yet another cheap air mattress had leaked air all night long.
I realized that a thick good quality self-inflating mat would not only keep me warmer, but didn’t lose air in the way air mattresses do and that investing in a decent 3-4 season sleeping bag meant I was warm at night and didn’t need loads of extra layers and blankets.
Shell found out the hard way that cheap air mattresses don’t keep you warm on a cold night. What makes them cold is their little insulation and their sensitivity to the ambient temperature. If the air in your tent is cold, your airbed gets cold, which ultimately leaves you cold.
Are you planning to sleep on an air mattress while camping? Then invest in one with a sufficient thermal resistance (R-value), keep your tent warm with a space heater or add extra insulation if necessary.
Shell also mentions that she felt sore after a night on her cheap air mattress. In doing so, she found out that the right firmness is important. Otherwise, your spine becomes misaligned, resulting in a sore back, stiff neck and aching limbs.
You won’t find an air mattress that doesn’t deflate at all, but you do want to avoid having to get up at night to reset its firmness. So before you buy an air mattress, look up what other people are writing about it. These can either be reviews or discussions on forums.
You’ll quickly find out that the cheaper mattresses, such as those made by Intex, deflate too much at night.
If you want to make sure your air mattress doesn’t deflate excessively, consider a self-inflating airbed with a built-in pump. You set the firmness and it will add air on its own if it deflates too much.
Sabina From Mummy Matters
I would say our biggest mistake was underestimating just how cold it gets at night.
Wear layers to sleep, make sure you put as much ‘under’ your sleeping bag as you put on top because the cold comes up from the ground.
Use foil blankets (think marathon runners) under you when sleeping to reflect the cold down and the heat up.
It can be a really long and miserable night when you are cold.
This was also one of my first camping mistakes. I misjudged how cold it would get on a spring night when camping in the Hoge Venen.
Being cold, shivering all night and barely able to sleep… I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.
Fortunately, with the right preparation and equipment, it’s not that hard to be warm at night. In addition to Sabina’s sound advice, here are a few more tips for staying warm in your sleeping bag:
- Make sure your sleeping bag and mat are well insulated.
- Don’t forget about a sleeping bag liner.
- Pitch your tent out of the wind. Find a natural shelter such as healthy trees or make one yourself with a tarp.
- Lay your down jacket over the torso section of your sleeping bag.
- Small tents are better because they stay warm more easily. Fill up as much space as possible with your belongings.
- Wear thermal underwear, socks, a long undershirt and a beanie.
- Eat a snack rich in carbohydrates before going to bed. Your body digesting it keeps you warm.
- Use hand warmers or fill your water bottle with hot water and put it in a sock. Lay it between your thighs or on your chest for best results.
- If you bring your dog, let him sleep close to you. Depending on the size of your tent, his body heat may help you warm up the tent.
- Share body heat with your partner.
Pauline From Mama Bear Outdoors
The worst camping mistake that I have ever had, was not taking enough food.
We were camping in the Backcountry and had to backpack in. My husband was responsible for food and didn’t take enough.
Fortunately I left a day after they did, so I brought in more food.
Apparently they had run out and were eating frog legs and fish.
I think Pauline’s last sentence makes it clear that you should always bring enough food.
But how much is enough?
As usual, it depends. Are you chilling at the campsite or hiking intensively all day? Consider these rules of thumb:
Type of trip
Calories per day
You don't feel like doing much hiking, but would rather spend your time reading a book by the river.
The same amount you eat at home (usually 2000 – 2500)
You sleep in, hike a few miles and decide to swim in the river. When the clock strikes 4 o'clock, you stay and chill at the campsite for the rest of the day. You're only out for four days.
3000 – 4000
You get up early and start hiking after breakfast. Your day looks like 13 miles of exhausting hiking on a sloping trail, and this will continue for two weeks.
4000 – 4750
Nice guidelines, but the truth is that some people on longer backpacking trips carry a little less food. After all, you have to carry every ounce you bring. Ultimately a lot comes down to personal preference.
That said, if you’re a beginner, start with these rules of thumb and make any adjustments after your first trip.
As for what types of food are best to bring, there is again a difference between car camping and backpacking.
When weight doesn’t play a role, you can bring just about anything you want, especially with a cooler.
Backpackers are not that lucky. They have to watch their weight carefully, so foods with a high calorie-to-weight ratio are best. And since these are usually snacks, you’ll find that many backpackers replace their lunch with a few snacks spread throughout the day.
Have a look at these best backpacking foods and choose the ones you’ll like while keeping protein, carbohydrates and fats balanced.
As for the biggest mistake, it might sound silly, but not having enough sun protection.
I got horribly sunburned.
Sunscreen, umbrella, hat – do whatever you have to do to keep from getting fried.
It does sound silly at first, but getting sunburned is actually a serious camping mistake.
Many people neglect this danger because a sunburn fades after a week or so. What they forget is that sunburns increase your chances of skin cancer in the long run.
Assuming Wade’s sunburn was a blistering one, his chances of developing a highly-deadly skin cancer more than doubled in just one day. Ever wondered why skin cancer is the most common cancer? Now you know.
Wade already suggested a few ways to prevent sunburns: wear a wide-brimmed hat, use an umbrella or apply sunscreen (ensure it’s at least SPF 30 and reapply every two hours).
Aside from this great advice, you could also do the following:
- Wear long-sleeved shirts (that block UV rays) and avoid shorts.
- Protect your eyes with sunglasses.
- Stay in the shadows as much as possible.
- Protect your lips with a broad spectrum lip protectant (at least SPF 15).
Be extra careful in the following cases:
- If you’re camping in snow. It’s the UV rays that damage your skin and eyes, and snow easily reflects UV rays. So don’t forget your sunglasses on your winter trips (and sunglasses retainers so you don’t lose them!).
- If you think you can’t get sunburned on cloudy days, because you can.
- Between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
- After swimming or excessive sweating (you may need to reapply sunscreen more often).
- If you have fair skin.
- If you have a weakened immune system.
- If you have many moles on your skin.
- If skin cancer runs in your family history.
- If you’re camping near the equator or at a higher elevation.
If you do happen to get sunburned, treat it as soon as possible.
Daniel From Camping Maniacs
The itch for venturing into the wild, immersing myself in nature, and exploring new sights and sounds didn’t seem like it was going anywhere anytime. So, taking up camping was a sure next step.
I had gathered plenty of information on what to do and where to visit but remained completely ignorant on how much to carry or even what the camping essentials should have been. My debut into the world of camping began with a casual three days and two nights hike.
My large rucksack was bulging at the sides loaded with all manner of camping gear and personal “necessities”. From the new two-person tent, cooking supplies, food items (lots of snacks too), toiletries, a bunch of electronics, to even a change of clothes – for each day! The pack was like a miniaturized mobile convenience store.
Then again, how would I have known I wouldn’t need my weighty skillet and three-set cooking pots while out in the great outdoors.
Besides packing too much gear, Daniel shares his other major beginners camping mistakes:
- He didn’t get in shape for his backpacking trip.
- He didn’t know how to pack his backpack properly.
- He did go on a test run, but since it was too short he misjudged how heavy his backpack would actually be.
- He brought too much food and items because he didn’t know he could refill in grocery or camp stores near the trail. Always do research on your destination/trail.
Read Daniel’s full story on this page.
As a rule of thumb, try to avoid having your backpack weigh more than 20% of your body weight.
You should take this with a grain of salt, though. You may be strong enough to handle more than 20%. It also depends on the intensity and length of your hike. Not to mention, if you don’t weigh much, chances are you’ll have to carry more than 20% because you can only get your pack weight so low.
The problem is that many beginners pack everything they think they need, and that’s just too much.
Start with the ten essentials and add items you really need. Examples include a toothbrush, medication, your tent, sleeping pad and bag.
Go camping with only the essentials, then expand your inventory with items you craved during the trip. This checklist may give you some ideas.
Ditch unnecessary items: If you’ve already gone camping with an overly heavy pack, you should evaluate each item based on its weight and usefulness.
Here’s what you want to do:
- Organize your gear in three piles: essential, barely used and never used.
- Reflect on each item from the barely & never used pile. Do you really need your rain gear? Do you really need your bandana?
- Consider the extra weight and decide accordingly. Maybe you would get wet without your rainwear, but is that a problem if you’re hiking in high temperatures? Consider sacrificing some comfort for a lighter pack.
Remember that you shouldn’t ditch something that’s promoting safety, like a first aid kit, an emergency blanket or an extra pair of glasses if you’re blind without them.
Reduce your base weight: Considering that the weight of your food, water and fuel changes during the trip, it makes sense to pay more attention to reducing the weight that doesn’t change.
Examples include your clothing, your tent, sleeping bag and stove.
But how exactly do you reduce your base weight?
Here are a few tips:
- Spend most of your budget on the big four: Tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat and backpack. Invest most of your money in these items to save as much weight as possible.
- Use fewer stuff sacks: You’re using stuff sacks to keep your gear dry and organized, right? You could use less sacks and save a few ounces. Also, leave out the packaging of your tent. Just put your tent and its poles directly into your backpack.
- Backpack in group: This allows you to share the weight. You would only need one water filter and stove.
- Use a stuff sack as a pillow: Fill it with clothing and you made yourself a pillow.
- Consider a BRS stove: This ultralight stove is sufficient if you eat meals that can be prepared with boiled water only.
- Repackage: If you want to save as much weight as possible, repackage your food and repackage toothpaste, sunscreen or soap.
- Clean your clothes: Please don’t pack a set of clothes for each day. That’s just too heavy. Instead, plan your trip so that you can wash your clothing in rivers and streams. Soap is unnecessary. You can let your clothes dry at your camping spot or on your backpack while hiking. Oh, and keep a spare set of clothes in your car for after the trip or for emergencies.
More tips can be found here.
Plan your meals: Know that you need about 2500 to 4750 calories depending on the intensity of your trail, then combine different foods to achieve a balance in weight, protein, carbohydrates and fats.
Make your digital backpack: Weigh every piece of gear and gather this info on lighterpack.com. An example is this list. You could do the same in a spreadsheet. Add and remove items until you find a low enough weight.
Note: Know that going ultralight is not for everyone. It’s still possible to have an enjoyable backpacking trip even if you have a lot of weight on your shoulders. Take my parents for example, they went backpacking with packs that would be considered too heavy these days. If you don’t feel like spending money on ultralight gear, save weight wherever possible and make your trips less intense if necessary.
Josh & Sarah From Veggie Vagabonds
Our biggest camping mistake as beginners was having the same packing list for all seasons.
Though it requires investing in more equipment, you’ll have a much better experience if you’re not lugging around a 4-season tent in the warmer months.
You’ll also be much safer if you’re not trying to use a superlight single-walled tent in stormy winter conditions.
Pack according to the conditions and you’re on to a winner.
You heard Josh, if you’re serious about backpacking and do it year-round, consider investing in gear for both times of the year.
It might even save you some money in the long run because you lower the frequency of use, which can be a factor of durability. At least, that’s what I found out in this document.
Josh limits his answer to tents only, but there are a few more items that it’s best to have two versions of:
Breathable, lightweight and quick-drying trail shoes for three-season use.
In winter, you usually want boots that are sturdy, warm and waterproof to a certain degree.
Note: Whether you choose boots or trail shoes depends for the most part on your personal preference.
Fully waterproof boots are not breathable, which makes that your sweat can’t escape, resulting in wet feet that eventually get cold.
If you’re going to hike through loads of snow, you’ll need snow boots.
Merino wool remains my number one fabric for summer base layers. I love its ability to wick away moisture and provide a little bit of cooling.
For winter camping trips, I prefer synthetic fabrics, especially polyester, because they’re excellent moisture-wicking and quick drying.
Choose the thickness according to the temperatures. Winter camping requires heavyweight base layers, but remember that keeping you warm is your insulation layer’s job.
Note: Special hiking clothes are not always necessary. I started with casual shorts and cotton t-shirts for summer backpacking trips. Even now, I still dare to bring those because I don’t like tight-fitting clothes.
Your canister stove won’t work in temperatures colder than 31°F. Your best option then is a liquid fuel stove with white gas.
I’m sure you know a few people who don’t like camping because they feel cold at night. Often, this is because their sleeping pad’s thermal resistance (R-value) is too low. The higher your R-value, the more you’re isolated from the cold ground.
So if you camp all year long and need a sleeping mat, you have three options:
- Buy a sleeping pad with a high R-value and use it year-round. Highly-insulated sleeping pads won’t overheat you in summer.
- Buy two sleeping pads and stack them in winter (R-values are additive).
- Buy two sleeping pads: one for summer and one for winter.
If you don’t have a sleeping mat yet, consider option 1.
If you already have a sleeping pad, you could buy another if necessary and stack them on winter camping trips.
If you want your backpack as light as possible, consider option 3.
If you’re not sure that a sleeping mat will be warm enough, consider renting one to make sure it meets your needs.
Winter gear requires more space, so consider investing in a larger backpack if you don’t think it will fit in your summer pack.
As a rule of thumb, count an extra of 15 liters. Many stores allow you to bring your gear and look for a backpack that fits it all.
Jacket, sleeping bag and socks
This one is pretty obvious, but it’s best to have a more insulating sleeping bag, jacket and socks if you’re camping in colder weather.
However, insulating gear can easily be stacked with layers. It saves you some money, as more insulating gear is more expensive.
You can wear two pairs of socks, for example.
The same can be said for down jackets. Combine them as long as you don’t reduce the loft because it’s the air inside your jacket that keeps you warm. Therefore, make sure your outer jacket is larger than the one on the inside.
It’s the same with sleeping bags. You can layer them as long as one is slightly larger than the other. An insulated sleeping bag liner can also help.
Stack your gear carefully if you’re backpacking. Keep a close eye on weight and space, as bringing extra layers may be too heavy and bulky.
Lara From Outdoors With No Limits
The most hilarious one was when we went 3 days hiking with my girl friends from school.
We split our 3-person tent to share the weight and each of us took one part, the fly sheet, the inner tent and the tent poles.
I was supposed to carry the tent poles but for some reason, I can’t explain even today, I forgot them in the bus that took us close to the hiking path.
Of course we discovered the missing poles when it was time to set up the campsite.
I amazingly put my brain to work and built ourselves a shelter made of branches and the other two parts of the tent. My reputation as a mountain girl was saved (somehow!).
Lara’s experience uncovers a subtle but fatal mistake. In fact, the same mistake revealed itself about a few years ago, when I got out of a train only to realize that I had forgotten my brand new iPhone inside.
I learned from this mistake, and now it’s common practice to check my seat before I walk away, after a break while walking, or whenever I get off the train, bus, or car.
What mistakes did we discuss today?
- Not using a checklist to make sure you bring every important item.
- Cheaping out on important gear.
- Underestimating how cold it can get at night.
- Taking too much food with you.
- Bringing too much stuff.
- Ignoring sun protection.
- Having the same packing list for all seasons.
- Not checking your seat after a break while hiking.