I grew up hiking in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia and as an adult I’ve hiked all over the United States from Maine to California and most places in-between. In Europe, I’ve hiked in the Spanish Canary Islands, Austria, Germany, and Greece, to name a few countries. Although there hasn’t been that much hiking in the various Caribbean islands I’ve been to, where there were mountains or even trails in natural parks or preserves, I’ve hiked them. Hiking in New Zealand probably afforded some of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen just because it’s one of the most beautiful countries I’ve seen. In South America, I’ve hiked in Chile and Peru, which were also amazing places to hike and left me with an urge to go back and see more.
I know many people have done much more intense hiking than I have, just as others have done hardly any or no hiking in their lives. What I’d like to discuss here is more for beginners because I feel like that’s the group that I’d like to persuade. I understand for people that have never been hiking or maybe only gone once or twice, it may seem a bit daunting to go out on a several hour hike in the woods. I’ll cover things to do before you ever leave your house to go on a hike so you feel completely prepared and actually look forward to the amazing views you’ll see on your hike.
First off, choose a place to hike. This can be a state park near where you live, a national park you have plans to visit, or a place you’re going to visit soon on vacation. If you don’t want to hike up a mountain, there doesn’t even have to be a mountain in the area since many trails are along lakes, rivers, or other flat areas.
Once you have a place in mind, pull up the website for the area and see if they have a list of trails. I’ll give you an example to go on for better reference here. Say I’d like to go to Arches National Park in Utah (which I really would like to visit someday). Go to the U.S. National Park Service website for Arches National Park, then click on “Plan Your Visit” then “Things to Do” then “Hiking.” Under the hiking section, you will see all of the trails at the park, listed from easy, moderate, to difficult. There are trail names, round-trip distance, elevation and estimated time to complete, and descriptions. These descriptions are thorough and accurate so if it says a trail is difficult, you should believe it is and not go out there if you’ve never hiked in your life, even if you are in good shape physically.
Just like runners gradually increase the distance ran, hikers should do the same and gradually increase in intensity and distance covered. Choose easy hiking trails to begin with and as you become more comfortable over time, work up to moderate and eventually more difficult trails. Remember that distance isn’t the only factor in the trail rating system. How quickly the trail increases in elevation and the general condition of the trail are also factors in rating a trail (if there are large areas of loose rocks going downhill especially, a trail would be rated as more difficult for example).
OK. So you have a trail or maybe even a couple of trails in the same park in mind and you’re ready to head out for a couple of hours to go hiking. Now what? First, check the weather for the day. Really, you should do this a day or so before you plan on going hiking. If there’s a good chance of thunderstorms you definitely shouldn’t be hiking in that. If there has been rain recently in the area, you should know that many trails will be muddy and slippery. That may be fine if you’re an experienced hiker but if you’re new, you probably shouldn’t go out under those conditions.
Next you need to pack a backpack to bring along on your hike. Here are some things you should always pack for a day hike:
fully-charged cell phone (download the area in Google Maps before you go out so you have it offline)
small first aid kit (that includes matches or a lighter)
printed map of the trail if possible for a back-up
bear spray if there are bears in the area or pepper spray
Also, familiarize yourself with the area you will be exploring as best as you can beforehand. If you are going to an area where flash floods are a possibility, you should be prepared for that and know what to do should one happen. Websites are great but speaking to a park ranger when you get to the park is also a great way to familiarize yourself with the park. Ask specifically about trails you were planning on hiking but also ask about other areas of the park.
Make sure you wear proper footwear for hiking. Many times I’ve been amazed at how many women wear flip flops and dressy sandals on trails. With so many great hiking shoes available now, there’s just no excuse for not wearing appropriate shoes on a trail. I personally like Merrell’s hiking shoes because they’re fairly light-weight, comfortable, have great traction and they’re not bulky like traditional hiking boots. While plenty of people go hiking in regular athletic shoes/running shoes/tennis shoes or whatever else you want to call them, they just don’t have as good of traction as hiking shoes unless they’re specifically trail running shoes, which would of course be fine for hiking.
You should also be appropriately dressed for your hike. This will be dictated partly by weather conditions, but you’ll be more comfortable if you wear “wicking” fabrics basically made to speed-up the evaporation of sweat from your clothes. Cotton, by the way, does not do this but actually holds moisture in the fabric. While it may sound crazy to some people, merino wool socks are great year-round (not just when it’s cold outside) as they are great at quickly evaporating moisture. A hat and sunglasses are also good for sunny days. Long pants will of course protect your legs better than shorts if it’s not too hot for pants. Layers are always a great idea especially if you’ll be going up in elevation since it’s cooler at the top of a mountain than at the bottom.
It’s a good idea to let others know where you’ll be especially if you’ll be in a more remote area, so let someone else that won’t be hiking with you know where you’ll be hiking and what time you will be on trail. Likewise, after you return, send them a quick message so they know you’re no longer hiking. Some parks also request that you sign in at a trailhead.
Sometimes a permit is required to hike a certain area. Check online as soon as you know you will be hiking in a particular area to see if you need a permit because some permits are only available during a certain time frame. There will be a link on the website for permits if they are necessary. Usually this is for longer, overnight hikes but some places do this to limit the number of hikers per day.
Keep your distance when (if) you see wildlife. If you come across a bear, moose, elk, or even deer and you’re pretty sure it doesn’t see you, slowly and quietly back away (facing the animal so you can still see it) the way you came until you’re well away from the area. What ever you do, don’t run! The animal will think you’re prey and chase you. If a mother has her babies near-by, she will be extremely protective of them and will be willing to fight you to the death. There’s a trail near where I work and several years ago a runner came upon a mama deer and her babies and made the mistake of approaching them. The woman was kicked in the face by the deer and was so badly beaten up that she looked like she had been in a boxing fight.
Finally, if you want to go hiking in a new place and want to take along your dog, make sure dogs are allowed first. Some places allow dogs on specific trails but not others and other places don’t allow dogs at all. Be extremely cautious about letting your dog off-leash on a trail even if you do it all the time near your home; you certainly don’t want to lose your dog in a huge park and/or a place you’re not familiar with.
Do you like to go hiking? Did I leave any other important information out? If you don’t like hiking, I’d be curious to know what you don’t like about it. If you have any questions for me about hiking, I’d be glad to answer them.