Just like any new activity you begin to do, there is a learning curve. The more experience you gain, the better sense you will have about what’s appropriate and what’s not, what works for you and what doesn’t. But here are some tips from seasoned experts that might save you a little grief and/or discomfort while you’re still learning.
News flash: Denim is cotton, so wearing jeans (and jean jackets for that matter) is a poor choice for any hike, especially in rainy or cold weather. Why? Cotton retains moisture instead of wicking it away like wool and polyester fabrics. Once cotton gets wet, it takes a long time to dry out; that moisture on your skin siphons away body heat through convection, leaving you shivering in your boots, and more susceptible to hypothermia. Jeans are the worst of all cottons because they can ice up in below-freezing weather.
Buying Cheap Equipment
Sam Walton was an Eagle Scout, but he didn’t become America’s richest man selling top-quality hiking gear at discount prices. Yes, Wal-Mart does sell an Ozark Trails sleeping bag for $10, but you probably wouldn’t use it on the Ozark Trail. Buy your beef jerky, trail mix ingredients, and propane canisters at big-box retail stores, but trust specialty outdoor stores and reliable brands for the gear that matters most, like footwear, raingear, packs, sleeping bags, and tents. (See Equipment topics)
Trail Hiking with a Road Map
The map that helps you find the trailhead parking lot won’t help you navigate a trail. Detailed USGS topographical maps are the gold standard for backcountry navigation, but they are often overkill for popular and well-marked trails. Much easier to acquire and use are designated trail maps that include topographical features like rivers, ridges, and peaks, as well as key info like mileage and trailheads. Book stores and visitor centers often stock maps and guidebooks for local trails. (See Trail Guides topics)
Overkill in Packing a First Aid Kit
Morphine? Check. Gauze bandages? Check. M1 rifle? What? Most novice hikers either forget to bring a first-aid kit, or pack an entire pharmacy. Neither represents the right approach. You should bring a first-aid kit appropriate for the length of your trip, the size of your group (along with any individual medical needs), and your medical knowledge. The last one is important: If you don’t know how to use a first-aid item—like a suture kit—you probably shouldn’t be carrying it. Packing obscure supplies you’ll probably never use in place of additional bandages and painkillers doesn’t make sense. (See Emergency Kit Contents link for what to bring.)
Wearing Boots Fresh From the Box
Even if you’re not a fan of hiking proverbs, this one’s gospel: “If your feet are happy, the rest of you is happy.” Neither you nor your feet will be happy if you begin a long hike with untested shoes or boots. Break them in while doing chores around the house, walking the dog, or running errands. Trail shoes, which perform more like athletic footwear, conform quickly to your feet, while taller, rigid boots require more break-in time. Wear recently purchased shoes indoors at first, since most outdoor stores have return policies that exclude those worn outside. If your feet hurt or develop hotspots or blisters, apply bandages, experiment with different socks, and keep at it. Remember also that most people’s feet swell a half size or more by the afternoon. (See Footwear information)
Starting Too Late in the Day
Showing up an hour late for a 7 p.m. dinner reservation is bad manners. But starting at 2 p.m. a hike that you intended to begin at 10 a.m. is bad news. Unless you want your 15 minutes of fame on the CNN ticker (“Clueless Hikers Survive Freezing Nights in Wilderness”), it’s best to start on time, or shorten your route. One hiker learned this lesson the hard way on a 10-mile hike in New Hampshire that began four hours late, included a few frustrating wrong turns, and ended at the trailhead parking lot just before midnight.
Besides an early start, how fast you move matters, too. An athletic adult hikes at 3 mph, but that rate drops to 2 or even 1 mph when you factor in rough terrain, elevation changes, and rest breaks. Groups always move slower than individuals, and a snail on crutches will beat families with toddlers. If you find yourself starting later than anticipated, check your map for shorter routes or a cut-off trail to reach your destination before sunset. If you find yourself falling behind, avoid the lure of cross-country shortcuts, and instead keep moving, watch the time, and be prepared to finish using headlamps, which you packed for just such an occasion.
Ignoring (or being ignorant of) the Weather Forecast
A little rain isn’t a reason to cancel a hike. That’s why we have Gore-Tex boots and waterproof jackets, right? But even the best equipment can’t provide 100 percent protection from the soggy remnants of a hurricane or an Arctic-born blizzard. So before every trip, review a website forecast such as www.noaa.gov, which uses a Google Maps interface to generate five-day forecasts for precisely where you’ll be hiking. These results are far more accurate than the traditional forecasts for the nearest town, which could be miles away and thousands of feet lower than a trail. Plus, you can read the “Forecast Discussion,” which is like eavesdropping on local meteorologists during their coffee breaks.
Skimping on Leave No Trace
Litterbug? Not you. You may be a committed recycler, and even wash and re-use zipper-lock bags. But in the back country, where do you dump the soapy water after washing dishes? Do you really strain out the food bits and scatter the “gray” water at least 200 feet from any lake, stream, or campsite? And do you use biodegradable soap? That’s what Leave No Trace (LNT) (www.lnt.org)—seven principles promoting ethical, low-impact outdoor recreation—advises you to do. It’s easy to practice LNT’s major rules: Carry out trash, keep away from wildlife, and minimize the impact of campfires. The finer points, however—like packing out toilet paper and building small fires—are harder to follow. But since Bambi doesn’t crap up your bedroom, you should extend the same courtesy. (See LNT info on the class web site.)
If you learned something on this page, you may want to consider reading more about The Wrong Way to do things.