Everything is easy once you know how but preparing for your first overnight hike can be daunting. Everything seems fraught with unknowns. Things that are effortless at home (eating, cooking, washing, sleeping) suddenly require extensive consideration and planning, and what about that extra load on your back? Here’s a heads up on what to expect and how to make your first overnighter go as smooth as possible.
Go with a friend (an experienced one)
I’ve gleaned so many gems of knowledge over the years by walking with others but never was I more reliant on their advice than on my first overnight hike. An experienced hiker can help guide you through the process of packing, gear selection and food prep, and provide a little mentorship on the ways of trail life once you get out there. If you don’t have such a pal, try a bushwalking club or Meetup group.
Pick an easy trail
Three hours of hiking was enough excitement for one day on my first overnight jaunt. By then I was glad to get that unfamiliar heavy load off my back, set up camp and bask in the satisfaction of having walked to a beautiful forest only accessible on foot. Just one night out is enough – don’t make it an epic. Pick a trail that’s easy to follow and not too remote, and choose a campsite that will have a toilet and water source to keep things simple. If there’s a shelter and a picnic table too, even better. Mobile coverage, and finding a camp not too far from road access, can be helpful in case you need to call for help.
Hike in friendly weather
You’re going to have enough on your plate on your first overnight hike without adding crappy weather to the list of things to contend with. Rain makes camping out considerably more complicated and uncomfortable (no one likes having to cook in it or pack up wet tents). Equally, you don’t want overly high temperatures where you’d need to carry extra water or risk the heat depleting you of precious energy.
Easy does it
Hiking with 12-18kg on your back is a completely different ballgame to hiking with a daypack. While you might be able to easily pump out 20km or more on a day walk you should plan to do far fewer kilometres when carrying a load. That extra weight puts stress on your feet and body so take regular breaks so you can take your pack off, rest the body and maybe air your feet for five minutes. It truly makes a difference. Preparing your body with regular day walks beforehand will help ensure you’re in condition for the big event.
I once crossed paths with two newbie overnight hikers who were packing fresh corn on the cob (yum but get rid of the cobs, guys) and half a kilo of carrots (ie, way more than needed). Fresh stuff is nice but it’s heavy so go with lightweight dehydrated light food wherever you can. Avoid canned food in favour of ready-made hiking meals (just add hot water) or dried meals straight off the supermarket shelf (eg, packet pasta with sauce, tuna sachets with flavoured couscous, etc). Portion out food so you’re only carrying what you need plus a bit extra for emergencies. I’ll often spoon out peanut butter or jam into reusable mini containers so I don’t need to carry the whole jar, and decant portions of breakfast muesli, milk powder etc, into ziploc bags. Remove all unnecessary packaging before hitting the trail to save on weight and space.
Knowing what to take can be an overwhelming prospect so it helps to create a packing checklist so you can systematically tick things off and avoid forgetting anything (you can refer to this one as a starting point). You’re unlikely to omit the tent and sleeping bag but don’t forget the little things like toilet paper, lighter, and a head torch. Every kilo will make life on the trail that bit harder so trim weight wherever you can. Pack toiletries in mini size, leave bowls and plates behind and eat your dinner straight from the pot, wear just one set of hiking clothes for the two days and carry some dry thermals for night time plus a change of underwear. Before you set out, make sure all your gear is in working order and that you know how to use it – put up that new tent, crank up the stove. While you may love runners for day hikes, boots can have their place when you’re carrying a load and want that extra stability. Whatever you choose to wear on your feet, make sure they’re comfortable and broken in.
Even as an experienced hiker, it always amazes me how long it takes to gather all my gear together and measure out and package up food. Allow plenty of time for the process and do it days ahead of the hike so that if you do forget something you have an opportunity to fix things before hitting the trail. Weigh your pack so you can keep a tab on where you’re at, and bear in mind that adding water will add significant kilos.
Don’t sweat it
You’re entering the wild and wonderful world of multi-day hiking. It might be daunting at first but at the end of the day, if you plan it right, not much should go too far wrong on an overnighter. If you decide your sleeping mat isn’t plush enough, you’ll only have one disturbed night. If muscles you never knew existed grumble and groan, you’ll be back home before you know it. Gradually build on your experience and before you know it you’ll heading out on long adventures and loving it.
Laura Waters is a long distance hiker and author of “Bewildered,” about hiking 3,000km on New Zealand’s Te Araroa Trail.
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