Blazing Happy Trails: Hiking 101
(Durand Ridge, Mount Adams)
Summer is here and many people will be heading outdoors to hike, some for the first time while others may be looking to expand their horizons and seek out new territory. Whatever you aim to do this year, enjoy the journey but do it the right way. If you prepare properly, incredible and rich experiences await you every step of the way. If you don’t, you are setting yourself up for discomfort, disappointment, or worse, risking your own safety.
Preparing for any type of hike comes down to three key areas--gear, strategy and mental outlook. All three are crucial to enjoying whatever outdoor endeavor you undertake and will directly impact your experience for better or worse.
Get a good pair of shoes. If your feet hurt, your day sucks. You are spending nearly your entire time on your feet and if they don't feel good, neither do you. Some discomfort is normal, especially if you are hitting the trails for the first time or you embark on a particularly long trek. This usually lessens within 24 hours and you're back to normal by the next time you head out—not much different than working out for the first time after a long layoff or hitting the gym for an unusually long session. A quality pair of hiking shoes or boots will go a long way to making sure your feet stay comfortable. Different brands work for different people. No two feet are the same and it is well worth your time to research and try on (in an actual store) various styles and brands before plunking down your money for a particular kind. I favor Merrell because my feet are narrow and long (this brand skews toward this type of foot). I also prefer low cut shoes rather than “high top” boots, the latter of which feel more constrained and heavier, especially during a warm weather hike. There are numerous other quality brands and styles, but these work for me. If you have weak ankles or like the comfort of that style, however, high tops may suit you better. I use a more sturdy, high top boot for winter hiking which offers more warmth and waterproofing features, something which negates some of my preferences but gives me considerably more protection in the intense cold and snow one encounters on long winter sojourns. Some hikers actually use running shoes or cross trainers rather than hiking footwear altogether, a trend which has gotten recent attention in some hiking circles but is definitely a preference not shared by everyone. It’s really up to you—but don’t skimp on this part of the gear. Your feet won’t forgive you.
Stay away from cotton. If you’re hitting the trail for a short jaunt, you can get away with whatever you have in your sock drawer, honestly. But if you’re heading out for a more rigorous climb or trail hike, invest in some good wool or a merino blend wool socks (this isn’t the itchy winter sweater material you might be thinking of). They expel sweat and keep your feet dry. Brands today are much more varied so there’s one for every season. Good socks tend to be pricier but since you’ll only need a couple of pair (maybe three if you’re into longer hikes), it’s well worth the money. Wash in cold water and let them air dry to extend their lifespan.
Tend to your head. A good baseball hat will work. So will a comfortable bandana. Whatever your preference, cover your head when you hike. It helps keep hair out of your face and if you have no hair, sweat from getting in your eyes. More importantly, it keeps the sun off your head. I prefer the military-born “shemagh”, a long bandana like accessory which is made of porous yet durable cotton and can serve multiple functions on any hike, long or short. Originally designed for protection against sand and wind in the desert, the shemagh (think of it as a shorter, thicker sarong) really is an all-purpose hiking tool that is affordable (under $10) and available on Amazon or your local outdoor recreation or military gear store. It’s always good on longer hikes to have two of everything that goes on your head, especially in the summer when you’ll likely sweat through everything. It won’t take up much room in your pack, don't worry.
Hiking (or ski) poles. Are they required? No. Do they help? Yes, as much as 25% reduction of stress on your feet and knees, especially during descent when your legs are tired. Inexpensive, durable and easy to pack (most are collapsible). If you have bad knees or feet, use them anytime. If you have no real knee or foot problems, bring them along for longer hikes of higher elevation anyway. You might be glad you did.
Bring a backpack. Most bring something but not everyone packs correctly. You don't want to go too light and lack things you need nor do you want to over stuff your pack and lug around unnecessary weight. Here’s what you should have: a headlamp, some navigation/GPS device (phones have really come a long way in this area—bring yours), sunscreen, repair kit (multitool, tape, zip ties, string or wire), small first aid pack (just the basics needed to get you back down if hurt), food (more below on this), water (again, more below), some sort of emergency shelter material (space blanket—plastic sheet to reflect heat and weighs three ounces. Could be a lifesaver if stranded overnight or in a rainstorm), a high powered whistle (or air horn--either will help if you need assistance or have to scare away an animal) and extra clothing (more below). Rule of thumb? If you can’t carry it, don’t bring it. A huge breach of hiking etiquette is expecting others to carry stuff for you. Not cool. You bring it, carry it. If you can’t, leave it home. Within reason, it's better to pack it and not use it than need it and not have it. Most packs are fairly lightweight and suited for mid range climbs. Larger packs should be used for longer hikes (especially multi day adventures). You can splurge on all kinds of decked out packs but all you really need is something that feels good and is versatile. Make sure you adjust the straps according to your height, too, so you're not straining while you walk or have the pack too loose.
Bring lots of water. The general rule is two to three liters of water per person for a day long hike. Three liters equals six pounds, so plan accordingly. Hotter days will require more as will longer distances. If you're hiking in the winter don't underestimate how much you still need to drink water, no matter how cold it is—sometimes outside in the winter people don’t feel thirsty but your body still needs a steady pattern of hydration. Having a “bladder” style water source in your backpack is great and convenient (keep the tube off your shoulder and drink without having to stop and unpack) but clean it out after every hike and allow it to dry. Most longer routes have water sources where you can refill if necessary, so plan those trips accordingly. You can use brooks, too, but you must purify it first (research this one fully before attempting). Again, better to have water at the end than not enough.
Bring snacks. You’re working hard and you'll need some fuel. But save any lunch for the summit (if you bring one at all). On the trail you want easy, durable food that you can consume in under a minute or two and get a load of caloric value for your efforts. I am a avid Clif Bar fan but there are tons of other options (trail mix, dry fruit, peanuts, etc.) will work for your journey. The key is getting protein and digesting it easily. You simply don’t need a huge meal. It takes on a ton of weight in your pack and you’ll be too full for any effective climbing afterwards. I always pack a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (Teddy peanut butter with grape jelly) to eat at the top—it gives you a boost of sugar and protein in one pop and is very durable on the trail (pack it with wax paper and put it in a hard, plastic container so it doesn’t get crushed). Just my preference—you can find your own solution to this by experimenting and knowing your own tastes. Keep it simple and keep it light. But bring calories.
Check your clothing. Other than your shoes, what you wear is most crucial for any hike, long or short. For a long day hike, you have to know the weather and plan accordingly. Summer hikes generally require less fuss over clothing and some shorts and a simple wicking material shirt will work. But if you are climbing higher elevations, even as moderate as two to three thousand feet, having something to throw on (a light fleece top or long sleeved shirt) can be a day saver. Once you lose the protection of the trees, it can get very cold and windy very fast. You’ll want some extra layers with you. If you are hiking in the fall, winter or spring, depending on your climate you’ll want to keep a good shell jacket, rain jacket, gloves and a warm hat for unexpected temperature changes. Pack an extra pair of socks, too. You may never need them but when you do, you’ll really want them. To save pack space, roll your clothes and pack them tightly. Along with your water, this will make up the majority of what you pack. Everything else can be stuffed in side pockets and pouches. Avoid cotton (for the same reasons stated earlier) and stock up on wicking material-based clothes and even flannel (very useful and hike friendly).
Map out your route in advance. Know what you want to do and all the variables involved (distance, terrain and exit points). These days, there are incredible resources at your disposal, most of them online or as an app. AllTrails is an excellent app that has a free and pay version (about $30 bucks a year) and comes complete with trail maps, hiker reviews and the ability to record your hike with all kinds of delectable details you can geek out with during and after your climb (elevation gains, speed per hour, total miles, calories burned, etc.). There are others, but this is the one I’ve seen used the most. Research your hikes online in advance—there are many blogs and social media pages likely devoted to hiking in your area. Seek out knowledge as much as you can—most people are more than happy to share their experiences and offer tips you may not know about.
Know the weather. This is important enough to be its own category and will be the single most factor in what kind of day you have. The ability to predict the weather, even on high elevations, is amazing these days and easily available online. The higher you go the more unpredictable weather will become and even in the summer this can be dicey. Rainstorms can swoop in very quickly and leave you running for shelter somewhere or high winds can make your climb more difficult than you thought possible. If you bring the right clothing and accessories, you can reasonably manage most of these variables. Daylight is important—know what time sunset is in your hiking area and plan accordingly. Unless you’re planning an overnight hike, the loss of daylight is the worst situation you can face other than inclement weather. Not only does it require specific equipment (headlamp, dependable GPS) it can play games with your senses and outlook. Trails get longer, sounds get louder and things generally seem most dire when you get stuck unexpectedly in the dark.
Have a plan and stick to it. It’s easy to get on a peak or trail and commit to more than you’re ready for that day. The “let’s do another” mentality is only good if that’s what you planned for; anything else and you are risking your safety and possibly the safety of others. The higher and farther you go, the more variables can affect your hike (see above) but if you stay with your plan, you drastically reduce any chance that things will go awry. If you’re thinking that peak is “just” a thousand or so feet away or another mile or two, remember you’ll likely have to double that coming back. So if you’re moving at roughly thirty minutes or so per mile (pretty common speed for a good hiker at higher elevations), that mile will take a half hour plus another half hour to double back, causing and extra hour to your hike. “Just a little longer” can be a huge mistake. In addition to having a concrete plan it’s good to have an exit strategy. Know where you can “bail” on a hike and don’t be afraid to turn back. If you have any reservations about continuing onward at any point in the hike, either due to exhaustion or changing conditions, don’t hesitate to call it a day and come back another time. The mountain will be there for a long time. Pushing past your stated plan can work out but not worth the risk. Remember, if you need to be rescued, you’re not the only one at risk. Those who come to get you are also putting their own safety in jeopardy. If you do end up having to call in a rescue, be prepared to sit tight for a long time as it can take hours for anyone to get to you even in the best of conditions. Have some supplies and bunker down because it will be awhile.
Know thyself (and your own fitness level). Be honest with yourself in this area. If you think you are fit enough to tackle a certain hike, go ahead. But if you’re not, there’s no shame in adjusting accordingly. It’s great to push yourself but do it within a range of reasonable expectations. This is where a hiking partner comes in handy, and hopefully one who has a similar range in ability to your own (the exception, of course, being if you are on a guided climb or some other managed or paid expedition where you probably want a person of vastly superior ability by your side). Hikers are notorious for hiking and not doing much else in the way of working out. Try to become “whole body” fit, including strength training, stretching (yoga or some similar regiment is excellent) and some other cardiovascular exercise besides hiking (biking or running work as fine complements to hiking as does swimming). Hiking alone is a great workout but it's not sufficient for overall fitness since it generally targets a specific type of conditioning and does little for upper body strength or flexibility. Round out your exercise regimen and you will not only help your fitness level overall but your hiking will improve, too.
If you hiking in the winter, everything above becomes even more important and represents another experience and level of preparation entirely. Water supplies can freeze, extremities get cold and footing becomes difficult. Plan accordingly.
This is really simple—go forth, enjoy the journey and give back. When you hike, you are joining a community of people who generally love the outdoors and are respectful of their environment. Don’t trash the place; pick up your stuff and leave a clean trail behind you. Stay on the marked trail unless you really need to avert ice or slippery rocks. Try to leave your surroundings as intact as you found it (and maybe even a little better). Yield to the hiker coming up when you’re going down (unless they offer to stop and let you pass, of course). When you encounter another hiker, smile and say hello before you pass on your way. For me, taking pictures and recording limited video during my hikes is important. I love going through them afterwards and forming some narrative of whatever journey was made that day. But don’t get so caught up recording that you forget to just take in the surroundings using your own senses. All hikes are different and it’s important to take each one of them in fully and appreciate you were able to successfully make it safely back home, free to hike another day. Hitting the trails is cheap and the rewards are boundless if you really prepare correctly and maintain a positive attitude. Hiking alone is fine as long as you have some experience, are prepared and have an exit plan. Hiking with a partner or group can be a great experience but make sure nobody's left behind. The "weakest" hiker should ideally lead the trail followed by the stronger ones. If you're with a partner, try not to get too separated. If someone gets hurt or lost, you won't be around to help. Hiking is one of the most community-oriented endeavors around but is often done alone, which makes for a strange mix. With the proper preparation you can head out on the trails this summer (and winter if you get really committed) for improved fitness and more importantly, a much more healthy mental and emotional outlook. It's hard to be down when you are outside on a nice day. Hiking is one of the few things in life that is very affordable and will never let you down; plan accordingly and see you on the trails.