Know Before You Go: Hiking

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Feeling burnt-out, grumpy, or just plain stressed? A reinvigorating hike in the great outdoors is often just what the doctor ordered — and November 17, aka National Take a Hike Day, is coming up soon. Get in touch with Mother Nature with these tips for a great day in the woods.  

Hiking encompasses everything from taking a quick walk in the woods to climbing major mountains with a 40-pound pack. This article involves the less-intense side of the scale — we’re talking day hikes with a small backpack. For more info on overnights (or longer sojourns) in the woods, check out Greatist’s article on camping. Regardless of distance, the best strategy to have fun and stay safe in the woods is to plan and prepare in advance of any amble. Read on for tips on getting started and making any adventure go smoothly.

Climb Every Mountain — The Need-to-Know

As strange as it sounds, getting in tune with nature usually starts on the computer. Before picking a spot on the map, do some research. Backpacker Magazine, The National Park Service, and the National Wildlife Federation are all great sources for finding hikes around the country. Kristin Hostetter, the Gear Editor for Backpacker Magazine, recommends choosing a hike that’s commensurate with experience and physical fitness. If new to hiking, start with a shorter, less steep hike and progress over time until comfortable with longer distances and more challenging terrain.

As with any physical activity, it’s important to get in shape for hiking and prepare the body for moving in a specific way. Hostetter advises beginner hikers to just start walking outdoors, beginning with one mile and working up to four or five while carrying a backpack. A simple option: If you normally drive around town to run errands, grab a pack and set out on foot for a grocery run. Walking to and from the store and schlepping food all the way home simulates how hiking challenges cardiovascular endurance and muscle strength.

When training for a major ascent, focus on workouts that boost leg and core strength. A weight training routine can improve performance as well as protect the joints (particularly the knees, ankles, and back) that are often strained during hiking. You’re ready for the woods when an hour-long walk with a backpack is a piece of cake.

And don’t forget to break in new hiking shoes or boots before hitting the trail. Heading out in brand-new footwear is a recipe for blisters, uncomfortable feet, and an altogether unpleasant experience. Before purchasing new kicks, do some research about what to look for in a hiking boot. For a light, easy hike, choose trail running sneakers, trail shoes, or light hiking boots. For intense mountain climbing or backpacking, go for heavy-duty hiking boots that provide more ankle support and cushioning. Seek out an expert (i.e., a store employee’s) opinion in regard to fit. 

Mountain Man (or Woman) — Your Action Plan

Once you’re ready to hit the trail, follow these guidelines for staying safe and comfortable.

Check the Weather

It's important to know what kind of weather to expect so you can prepare and modify plans accordingly. Before hitting the trail, check the Internet or consult with a park ranger about the day's weather. If big storms (especially lightning storms) are expected, play it safe and take a (literal) rain check.

Pack Essentials

Fill a small day pack with the “Ten Essentials,” a list of important items for any hike in the woods. Fun fact: Seattle-based outdoor organization The Mountaineers came up with this list back in 1930!

  1. Navigation: Stay on the right trail with a good map (that you know how to read), compass, and/or GPS.
  2. Sun protection: Even on a cold day, hikers get plenty of UV exposure, especially on mountains that don’t have a lot of tree cover. Take care of eyes and skin with UV-blocking sunglasses, plenty of wide-spectrum sunscreen, and a hat.
  3. Insulation: Pack a few layers of extra non-cotton clothing — no matter how hot it is outside, it’s always important to bring an extra layer just in case you get stranded or the weather changes.
  4. Illumination: Even if you’re only planning to be out during the day, bring a headlamp or lightweight flashlight. Make sure it has fully charged batteries before leaving the house.
  5. First-aid supplies: Everyone has different medical needs, but a basic kit should contain at least the following items (Many camping supply stores sell pre-packed kits that include these essentials.). 
  • Bandages and gauze
  • Alcohol wipes (or providone iodine)
  • Small roll of medical tape
  • Antibiotic ointment
  • Anti-inflammatories (ibuprofen, acetaminophen)
  • Tweezers
  • Antihistamines (for bee stings or bug bites)
  • Non-latex gloves
  • Eye drops
  • A card with all personal and contact information for each hiker
  • An epi pen (if anyone in the group has a serious allergy)
  • Bear spray (if hiking in an area with bears)
  • Snake bite kit (if hiking in an area with poisonous snakes)
  • Any personal medications
  1. Fire-making supplies: Waterproof matches and/or lighter.
  2. Repair kit: Anything necessary to repair trail gear, including a Swiss army knife or other multi-tool, duct tape, shoelaces, needle and thread, scissors, wire, rope, etc.
  3. Nutrition: Enough lightweight, calorie-dense nutrition to last a night and part of the next day. (Yes, even if you’re 100 percent positive you won’t get lost.) Trail mix and energy bars are ideal. 
  4. Hydration: The amount of water you'll need will vary depending on the length and intensity of a hike. As a general rule, pack multiple quart-size water bottles per person. It's also important to plan for refills (even if you're not planning to get lost): Bring along a water purification system such as iodine drops, chlorine tablets, or a high-quality water filter.
  5. Emergency shelter: An emergency space blanket, tarp, or even an extra-large trash bag in a pinch.

It’s also smart to bring a photo ID, insurance card, and credit card in case of emergencies. If the hike is more than a few hours long, bring toilet supplies — a trowel, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer will allow you to do your business with (relative) comfort.

Suit Up

No, not that kind of suit. Dress for success in light layers made of moisture-wicking synthetic materials. Wool, fleece, and microfiber are ideal for staying warm and dry. On chilly fall, spring, or winter hikes, wear a hat to retain warmth and bring a heavier layer (a puffy down- or synthetic-filled jacket is ideal). Hostetter warns against cotton clothing because it takes forever to dry and doesn’t provide warmth when wet. In particular, avoid cotton socks like the plague, because they get wet and often cause blisters when they’re sweaty. Use wool or synthetic materials instead.

Tune In

When hiking, pay close attention to your body and surroundings. Keep an eye on the position of the sun in the sky so you know whether you’re moving at a pace that’ll get you home before sundown. If feeling tired, stop for a break and a snack and drink. Be sure to consume plenty of H20, especially on a hot, sticky day — drink before you’re thirsty to ensure proper hydration. If your feet start to hurt, take a minute to change into dry socks and slap a bandage (or some duct tape) on the hotspot. Your body is your transportation, so give it some TLC!

Use the Buddy System

Always inform friends and family about the trip itinerary and map, and check in with someone before heading into the woods. It’s always a good idea to travel with at least one other person for safety (and companionship, too).

Stay Safe

On the trail, respect the environment and be vigilant to potential dangers.

  • Don’t touch, pick up, or eat any plants, flowers, fruit, or animals, especially if they are unfamiliar.
  • Study up on safety precautions if hiking into an area known for poisonous snakes, bears, mountain lions, or other potentially dangerous wildlife.
  • Protect against bugs and insects by keeping skin covered (long sleeves, hats, and long pants tucked into socks work wonders), using bug spray, avoiding strongly-scented skin and hair products, and checking for ticks at the end of each hike.
  • Use only designated fire pits, clear away flammable leaves and pine needles before striking a match to prevent forest fires, and make sure the fire is fully out (and the ground in the fire pit is cool to the touch) before moving on.
Act Like Miss Manners

The trail can be a rough-and-tumble place, but it’s got its own code of etiquette and unspoken rules. Arguably the most important one is to leave no trace when hiking. Carry out what was carried in (that means trash, food, and yep, used toilet paper), leave flora and fauna alone, and generally minimize impact on the trail and campsites. Hostetter strongly recommends sticking to the trail (even when there’s a puddle) to maintain the integrity of the path and stay out of animals’ turf. Leave trail signs and markers alone, and keep voices down (and cell phones silent!) to be respectful of fellow hikers. Remember: The only souvenirs should be photographs and memories; the only thing left behind should be footsteps.

Special thanks to Kristin Hostetter from Backpacker Magazine and outdoor educator Sarah Clayton for their contributions to this article.

Are you an avid hiker? What are your favorite tips to prepare and plan a successful hike? Tell us in the comments below or tweet the author @SophBreene.

Originally published on June 24, 2013. Updated November 2013.

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About the Author
Sophia Breene
After spending eight years as a high school and college athlete, I'm learning how to maintain a healthy lifestyle on my own (aka without a coach...

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