Backpacking Anxiety: Addressing Fear

I’m afraid of:

Getting hurt.


My gear not working properly.

Discovering that I don’t know how to work my gear properly.

Forgetting something.

Getting lost.

Creepy people.

Being cold.

And the list goes on–people’s fears of what might happen on a backpacking trip are numerous and varied, especially when you’re new to this hobby.  However, there are a lot of things that you can do to mediate these fears.

First, practice. Set up your tent, filter water, hang your hammock, blow up your mat, make cocoa with your stove, hang a bear bag, build a fire from scratch. Whether you practice in your backyard or visit a county park, it’s important to do these things until you’re confident in your ability. 

Get comfortable with your gear. Make sure that everything works properly. You don’t want to be trying to contact customer service or watch a YouTube “how to” video from the middle of nowhere in the dark. Practice navigating. Print out maps of areas you’re hiking, and get in the habit of referencing them as you hike, ie before you aren’t sure where you are. Use navigation tools on your cell phone to see how they work and to what degree it drains your battery. If you carry a compass, be sure that you know how to use it in conjunction with your map–there are workshops for this! Regardless of what gear you carry, if you don’t know how it works, you may not be able to get it to do its job.

Make sure you’re happy with your gear. Sleep overnight or take a nap using your sleeping gear. Did you actually sleep, or did your hammock sag down to the ground? Did you freeze? It’s much better to discover these problems at midnight in your backyard than while dispersed camping after a ten-mile hike. Load up your pack, and hike around your neighborhood or local park. Make sure it’s comfortable. 

Forgetting something used to happen to me quite a bit. Now, I have a list that I’ve created as a Google doc, and I make a copy and update it for each specific trip before printing it out, and checking off each item as it goes into my pack.

If you’re worried about animals, think about strategies for dealing with them. First, keep a clean camp, and store your food properly to avoid attracting them in the first place. While most people would argue that bear spray isn’t needed in Michigan, would it add to your comfort level? If so, then maybe you should carry it. The scariest thing that I have encountered while hiking was two off-leash dogs (with an oblivious owner) that came running at me very aggressively. Pepper spray and hiking poles add a level of comfort to my hike, in case an incident like this escalates.

Some of Michigan’s state parks have hike-in campsites that allow you to “backpack” in, even though it’s usually not a very far distance–often a mile or less. (Campsite descriptions usually state the distance that you will have to walk). These are great locations for beginner trips. On the walk in, you can gauge, at least to some degree, how your pack feels, and how your legs and feet feel while carrying a loaded pack. While it might be tempting to bring more than you would on a backpacking trip, pack as though you were going to be hiking 10 miles with your pack each day, and see how you do without the creature comforts. There are usually trails nearby these hike-in sites that you could use for day hikes. Reservations for hike-in sites can be made online. Use this link and tab down to “Hike-In Rustic Camping in State Parks.” Sleepy Hollow SP has recently added some hike-in sites, and they are not yet on this list, but can be reserved by choosing Sleepy Hollow SP from the main reservation page.

Running into people who make you uncomfortable is scary. This is one of the reasons that I don’t like to camp in state forest campgrounds by myself, even if I’m just waiting for the rest of the group to show up–it’s quite obvious to other campers that you are on your own. However, if you park at an NCT trailhead that’s in a national or state forest, you could hike in a little way and camp in a more private location. (For more on these guidelines, see Tom Funke’s very helpful document “Where Can I Camp?” in the “Files” tab of the WMH&B page.) If you decide to hike the Manistee River Trail (MRT) loop, or other heavily used locations as your first backpacking trip, you likely won’t be alone, which could be good or bad, depending on your point of view.

Obviously, taking a friend or two can also make you feel more comfortable. Since not everyone has a bevy of friends or family who backpack, MeetUp groups or group trips held by Facebook backpacking groups can be helpful, but you also want to be careful that the trip will be at your ability level, and that the trip leader has some experience, or has planned something simple. (Don’t be afraid to ask questions of the trip organizer.)

While hiking with others is a good way to be sure that someone can help you or seek help if you get hurt, a lot of people have also opted for the Garmin InReach or similar devices for true emergencies. If you choose this option, be sure that yours is in good working order, and that you know how it works. (Last spring, a friend and I spent part of an evening at Nordhouse Dunes fiddling around with ours, learning how to message each other, and I watched a lot of Garmin’s “how to” videos while “navigating” in my own backyard–it was more complicated than I expected!)

Lastly, be aware that sleeping out in the woods takes some getting used to. Owls are loud. So are coyotes. We tend to think of nature as peaceful, but sometimes it makes a racket. On my last trip, to Sleepy Hollow State Park, we could hear some frantic rustling in the woods near our campsite while we were sitting by the fire. Eventually, we discovered it was just a couple of rabbits running around, but it sounded like something much larger. I was glad to know what it was before going to bed, because otherwise I might have been stressing out about it while lying in my tent, instead of sleeping. Sometimes it takes a night or two to get used to these sounds, or to be tired enough to sleep through them.

Published by lovesmichiganoutdoors

Hiking, backpacking, kayaking, stand-up-paddle boarding, sailing... exploring Michigan is my passion! Instagram: @jenren_hikes

One thought on “Backpacking Anxiety: Addressing Fear

  1. Thanks, Jennifer, for these helpful reminders. I am going to begin practicing with my InReach Mini. I hope the tutorials will guide me through this difficult learning process. I also want to improve my mapping skills. Get better at downloading and using (online and offline) maps on my phone. Have you purchased and used Guthook? Do you recommend this and/or All Trails? Looking forward to Michigan hiking season!


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