I almost called this “Hiking 101”, but thought that seemed too much like “hiking for dummies”….I mean after all, it is just walking. But there really are a few things to know before getting started. You need just a few pieces of equipment, some basic instruction, and to know some hiking etiquette.
The number one item that you need is a good pair of hiking boots. These days you can get really good boots at a reasonable price. A lot of companies also make what they call “light hikers”, that are like a rugged sneaker – these are good for flatter hikes. However, I prefer to hike in a boot that comes over my ankle. The two main places that I hike are in the Ozarks and in the Rockies, both of which have rocky and uneven trails. A boot that covers my ankle helps prevent rollover injuries. There are many great companies making quality boots – pay a visit to your local outdoor store for a proper fitting. Generally, they will put you in a boot 1/2 or 1 size larger than you wear in street shoes. The last thing you want is for your toes to be jammed into the front of the boot on a steep descent. I did a quick casual survey of my family, and between us, we have a couple pairs of boots by Keen, a couple by Merrell, one Ahnu, one Vasque, and maybe a Columbia. Also consider Danner, Cabelas, and L.L. Bean. The most important factor to me is that they’re waterproof. When you are hiking in any wilderness area, you will eventually encounter a muddy trail. When you step off of the trail to go around mud or water, you damage the ecosystem surrounding the trail. It’s best to stay on the established trail, therefore if your boots are waterproof, you just keep on trucking. You should expect to pay between $75 and $200 for a good pair of boots. After you have put about 100 miles on them, you should consider replacing the insoles. Only when the tread starts wearing down, do I replace my entire boots. I will usually get about 4 or 5 years from a boot.
Some typical trails where we like to hike….hence why I wear a waterproof, over-the-ankle boot
In addition to a good pair of boots, you need a thick and cushioned pair of socks. Again, personal preference comes into play. Most outdoor stores will carry a heavy supply of wool socks in different weights and thicknesses. I happen to not like wool socks, so I hike in Thorlo cotton hiking socks. They are very padded and comfortable. If you are going to be hiking long distances, or near deep water, always pack an extra set of socks in your pack. That brings us to your pack. The market is saturated and confusing with an amazing array of pack options. There are many very good brands out there: Camelback, Patagonia, L.L Bean, North Face, Osprey, Ozark Trail, to name a few. My family really likes Osprey packs, which we have a nice selection of, and we also have one or two Ozark Trail packs. My recommendation is to be sure it has a hydration bladder – this makes it much easier to carry your water. A tube with a mouthpiece comes out of the bladder, and over your shoulder, allowing you to take a drink without removing your pack and digging for a water bottle. There are a number of sizes, from just a hydration pack for shorter hikes, all the way up to packs that can carry bed rolls and tents for overnight hikes. Think about what kind of hiking you’re going to do to determine the size. My hometown has two really good outdoor stores staffed with knowledgeable employees (who are hikers themselves), who can help you figure out the best size for you. I’m sure your area does too. Look for REI, Cabela’s, etc. If you are going to be hiking for a few hours or more, you should always carry water, some snacks, a basic first-aid kit, extra socks, extra layers, a hat, a map, sunscreen, bug repellent, a headlamp if you’re going early or late in the day, a camera, a cell phone (which can often double as your camera), and an emergency blanket. Get a pack that will allow you to carry all of that. That may seem ridiculous on your 4-mile hike, but day-hikers are often the ones that get into trouble when they get lost because they don’t have enough food or warm clothes. Be prepared.
There are some optional pieces of equipment as well. One item is hiking poles – I use them on hikes that have a lot of elevation change. I’m very short, and will use the poles to plant on an incline above me, and pull myself up using the poles. They also relieve the pressure on my knees on a large descent. This is another item with a wide variance in price. You can purchase big name brands for $50 – $75 per pole. I picked mine up about 15 years ago at Walmart for $10 per pole. They telescope in and out for hikers of different heights, and for packing away. Mine are still going strong. Best $20 I have spent in a while. Another item is a hat with a brim (although I don’t really consider this an option) for keeping the sun off of your face. Mine has built in sunscreen, and I’ve been known to wipe bug repellent on it as well. I keep a bandana or neck gaiter in my pack at all times. Both can be used as sun protection or warmth for your neck, and both can be wet down in a creek and used as a coolant as well. Because I hike in the Rockies every summer, often at high altitudes, I also keep a knit cap and lightweight gloves in my pack.
When you go out hiking, you will see people in all sorts of clothing. There are no hard and fast rules, but let me share a few tips I’ve learned over the years. Jeans are a big no. They are heavy, and can be binding and hot. Short shorts are not practical. Both jeans and short shorts can lead to painful chafing. I recommend a good pair of hiking pants or shorts. Some of my favorite brands are Columbia, Prana, Eddie Bauer, Marmot, North Face, Mountain Hardwear, Magellan, and L.L. Bean. You want them to have some stretch, and be sturdy enough to withstand a tumble or kneeling down for a photo (my daughters all hike in leggings with long tops or t’s over them – this is becoming more common. However, I’ll stick with pants.). There are many shirts for both men and women that are moisture-wicking and are very comfortable to hike in. Several companies have put out shirts that they are marketing as fishing shirts, but that make great hiking shirts. I have several, in both short- and long-sleeve. I will often start the day in a t-shirt, with one of the long-sleeve hiking shirts over it. As the day warms up, I can remove the top layer (or add it back in the case of a shady or rainy hike).
Let me also say right here, that hiking in a wilderness area or national forest or National Park is NOT the place to wear your bikini top (or no shirt for the guys). There are bugs, poison plants, and other people out there. The other hikers (many with children) don’t want to see your scantily-clad body out in the wilderness. If that’s what you want to wear, go to the beach.
Depending on where you’re hiking, and the season of the year, you might start out at different times of day. Generally, it is best to start early in the morning. There are many reasons for this. If you are hiking at altitude in the west, there are usually pop-up afternoon thunderstorms. You need to be back below treeline by the time they start. It is usually cooler in the morning, meaning you won’t get quite as tired. And, if you are in a popular National Park area, you will find parking at the trailhead easier earlier in the morning. If you are going on a really long hike, let someone know which trail you’re taking, and what time to expect you back. That way, if you are delayed, someone will know to start looking.
Believe it or not, there is actually an etiquette of hiking. When you meet others on the trail, you should give way to the hikers coming uphill. Often when going up, you develop a rhythm, and if you have to stop, you lose your momentum. Of course, always give way to livestock like horses or alpacas. Step as far to the edge of the trail as possible, and stand still so as not to spook them. If you stop for a rest or snack, try to sit on a rock or log just off the trail, taking care to not block the trail for others coming along after you. Don’t leave trash behind from your snack stop (and pick up any that you see left from others). Let me also say that there may come a time when you need to relieve yourself – ahem – on a hike. Most National Parks will have toilets at the trail head and occasionally a privy (remote, primitive, not always private pit toilet) in the outback. Other wilderness areas may not have these, and then there could be the time that you hike for so long, that nature calls. If you must, get as far away from the trail as possible (without getting lost), and make sure you’re out of line-of-site of other hikers. It’s no big deal if it’s just “number one”, but if you must go “number two”, and you have time, the best thing is to dig a small hole, and then cover it after taking care of business. Several companies make biodegradable toilet paper, but if you don’t have that, it is truly best that you pack any paper out – take some extra baggies along. That said, I think the biggest piece of trail etiquette to follow is to speak to your fellow hikers. By sharing a “good morning, how’s your hike” with them, it makes you both look the other in the eye. You never know if you might need help later, and that person will remember having spoken to the short middle-aged lady with the blue pack. It could be the difference in finding a lost or injured hiker – which could be you.
While this seems like a lot of information, once you’ve purchased the basic pieces of equipment, it’s an easy and fun way to enjoy the outdoors and get some great exercise. On a recent 2-week vacation to the Rockies, I put nearly 100 miles on my hiking boots, and slept well every night after days spent in the beautiful mountain scenery and cool mountain air. Also, understand that most of this information is based on the assumption that you are going to be hiking in remote or wilderness areas because that’s our usual area of hiking; clearly if you’re just doing the 5-mile flat loop around your local lake, you make not need extra layers or a first-aid kit or over-the-ankle boots. But you still might appreciate a hydration pack instead of carrying a water bottle.
Now, lace up those boots and get outside!