Top 10 Beginner Hiker Blunders

Careless hikers are more likely to tumble off a cliff, poke a diamondback rattler, and otherwise get themselves in trouble’s way. And frankly, our nation needs more outdoorsy people, not less.

So Backpacker asked me, the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Backpacking and Hiking, to answer all of your camping, hiking, cooking, training, you-name-it questions. I’m no gonzo, Everest-scaling, bear-wrestling hardman, but I’ve hiked enough miles to recognize which mistakes first-timers tend to make. Let’s count ’em off:

1. Wearing denim like Johnny Depp on 21 Jump Street

News flash: Denim is cotton, so wearing jeans (and jean jackets for that matter, Mr. Depp) is a poor choice for any hike, especially in rainy or cold weather. That’s because cotton retains moisture instead of wicking it away like wool and polyester fabrics. Once cotton gets wet, it takes a long time to dry out; that moisture on your skin siphons away body heat through convection, leaving you shivering in your boots, and more susceptible to hypothermia (hence the aphorism “cotton kills”).

Jeans are the worst of all cottons because they can ice up in below-freezing weather. I learned this lesson on my first hike with the Appalachian Mountain Club in New Hampshire, and I’ve remained cotton-free ever since, except on short summer hikes where getting chilled isn’t a danger. So the next time you see hikers wearing blue jeans, remind them that the 1980s are over and that Johnny Depp now prefers tri-corner hats and eye-liner.

2. Buying your tent or sleeping bag at Wal-Mart

Sam Walton was an Eagle Scout, but he didn’t become America’s richest man selling top-quality camping and hiking gear at discount prices. Yes, Wal-Mart does sell an Ozark Trails sleeping bag for $10, but I wouldn’t use it on a real Ozark Trail. It’s fine to buy your beef jerky, trail mix ingredients, and propane canisters at big-box retail stores, but trust specialty outdoor stores and reliable brands for the gear that matters most, like footwear, raingear, sleeping bags, and tents.

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