Through the years, John and I’s traveling has transitioned into much more difficult, adventurous, and epic trips. When we look back at our most recent and 12th overall trip to our nation’s national parks, we see how much we have learned and grown in the three years we have been traveling together.
We used to try to hit as many viewpoints as we could in as many parks as we could reach. Check out our very first road trip post here to see what I mean. These days, we have started staying in one place and really trying to go deeper into the protected landscapes.
We just spent five days backpacking through Yellowstone National Park’s backcountry over the Fourth of July week of 2019. This was our first true multi-night backpacking trip, and we learned a lot about ourselves, the equipment we packed, and the trail we took.
This post outlines the 10 biggest takeaways we learned from our week in the woods. We hope our hard-learned lessons will help you better prepare for your own trips into any wilderness you might find!
(If you want to read more about our experience on the Thorofare Trail, the planning process we went through to get into the backcountry, or more about Yellowstone National Park, check out our blog posts on our Wyoming page here.)
1. Bug spray is not a luxury item.
No matter where you are, hiking and camping in the summer, especially around lakes and rivers, will probably include biting bugs. Bug bites are itchy, annoying, and can become infected. Covering bare skin can help, but bug spray adds an additional layer of protection. After bite treatment is great for soothing bites that inevitably happen, and we were glad to have it in our Yellowstone first aid kits. Don’t skimp on either when packing, and as silly as bug net hats may be, I invested in one immediately after our trip to Yellowstone. I suffered several bug bits through my hat in areas where I forgot to put bug spray. I never want to experience that again.
2. Make sure you can actually lift and carry your pack safely.
After hiking a few miles, I could barely lift my pack enough to get it on my back. There was one point I actually leaned over too far while trying to climb over a fallen tree and ended up flailing around like a turtle on its back, because I couldn’t stand back up with my bag on. This caused a much more serious problem down the trail when we attempted to cross a swiftly flowing creek (but that was part of the last and most important lesson learned).
3. Don’t assume that backpacking is the same as hiking.
We initially bit off a bit more than we could chew. Our first two days were eight and ten miles respectively, and they were a bit of a struggle. The weight of the packs made us move a little slower than anticipated. We only hiked at about half the speed we normally do.
4. Dig the hole before you go.
Just trust me on this one. When you are in the backcountry and have to go, you’re supposed to bury your business at least 6 inches deep. Make sure you remember this before your pants are down.
5. Know where everything is in your backpack.
This applies especially to the things in your first aid kit. When John and I faced issues that needed medical attention, it was important that we knew where everything was in order to get it out as quickly as week could. If you want to read what we carried in our pack, check out our Gear Post here.
6. Keep your rain gear close and easily accessible.
In the backcountry there is rarely service to check the forecast, and the weather can change instantly. We learned that the 10-day forecast we had read was a sham on the first day when an afternoon thunderstorm rolled in. We also learned that when a storm like that rolls in, you don’t have much time to stop and search for your stuff. Keeping my rain gear at the bottom of my bag was almost a costly mistake, but I learned to keep it in the outside pockets from then on out.
7. Always account for the weight of refilling water.
Some of our mornings, we would start off with nearly empty water bottles from the night before. I would always get used to the lighter weight and would struggle on the trail after we refilled our bladders and bottles. Also, leave room for the water in your bag. Don’t pack things too tightly when you are empty, because it’s a pain in the butt to have to repack every time you refill.
8. “Just because I can wear the same pants for four days, doesn’t mean I should.”
John learned that he didn’t quite pack enough pairs of pants. He only packed one pair of pants but several pairs of shorts. Shorts and swarming mosquitoes don’t mix. I’m sure his next trip into the backcountry will include fewer shorts than pants.
9. If your feet hurt, stop right away.
Both of the days that we averaged closer to ten miles, I got blisters on the outsides of my big toes. The first was on the left, and the second was on the right. The second time, I used moleskin to stop the rubbing much sooner than I had on the first which helped stop the swelling. I knew that once my socks started to bunch and rub, it would lead to nothing but pain.
10. Know when it is safe and how to cross a body of water.
If you haven’t seen how I was swept by a two foot deep creek, check out this video and post. We instantly learned that we did several things wrong in this scenario. For one, we misjudged the current and depth. Secondly, we didn’t link arms, and thirdly, my pack was too heavy for me. The swift current caused me to lose my footing and fail to regain it. It was almost a disastrous mistake but luckily all it led to was some bumps, cuts and bruises.
Bonus* - Don’t be ashamed to turn around. There is absolutely nothing wrong with choosing safety over continuing. Sadly, this isn’t the first time John and I have had to turn around, because some of Colorado’s 14ers have gotten the best of us. Slipping in a gushing creek forced us to turn around on Yellowstone’s Thorofare Trail and showed us that we need to be more careful when crossing flowing water.