There was a time in the not-too-distant past that hiking wasn’t all that popular.
The clothing, the gear, the backpacks, the trekking poles – yeah, that stuff wasn’t so cool. But times have changed.
The book “Into the Wild” gave folks a sense of wanderlust, and the ensuing movie adaptation reinforced it. Long-distance hiking and backpacking got a boost from Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild.”
And then came Instagram. Photos of scenic places and the people who go there multiplied by the millions, and a generation of folks got the urge to lace up their boots, go outside and find a trailhead. The numbers bear it out: The Pacific Crest Trail has seen a surge of growth in backpackers, as has the Appalachian Trail, and the hordes of altitude seekers in Colorado have turned once remote and seldom visited peaks into well-trod destinations.
Suddenly everyone is a hiker… until they’re not.
You’ve seen these folks before, or maybe this is you: You get excited about a hike, try to do the hike, then find that the experience ain’t near as fun as advertised. It gets cold. Or hot. There are bugs. And hills. Really steep hills. A lot of sweating is had. Blisters appear. And sunburns. Or windburns. Or chafing from those darned backpack straps. You find yourself wondering, sometimes aloud, “When is this damn thing gonna be over?”
Yeah, hiking can be uncomfortable. It’s not like a stroll through the park, the mall or your neighborhood. There are risks. And because hiking is a physical activity, it can zap the unprepared. So here are a few thoughts…
IF YOU WANT TO BE A HIKER
This one is for the non-hiker who wants to try it out. The good news is that everyone starts just like you. Even seasoned hikers started from the noob stage.
Pick your first hikes carefully. I’d tell anyone who is new to hiking to start small. Shorter routes, less elevation gain and loss, easier trails to follow. If you’re not a hiker, chances are you’re not used to walking 5, 10 or 20 miles in a day, and doing so will tax you more than you think, especially if you’re carrying a loaded backpack. Find those “beginner,” “novice” or “easy” trails online or in guidebooks and give it a whirl. There’s nothing wrong with your first hikes being in the 1-3 mile range.
Learn a few of the basics. The good thing about the internet is that you can not only easily research hikes, but also some of the things you should know before you go. Learn about the 10 essentials and Leave No Trace principles. Read up on the route you plan to hike. Pack a couple of liters of water and enough food for a lunch and some snacks.
Pick the right attire. Often this will depend on where you hike, and the season. But generally speaking, a sturdy but comfortable pair of hiking shoes or boots is preferred, as are wool or synthetic fiber socks. Cotton tends to absorb and hold water, which can cause blisters on your feet. A sturdy pair of pants and a moisture-wicking shirt is also advisable in warmer seasons. If it’s cooler, dress in layers and have some sort of rain jacket. A hat, sunscreen and decent sunglasses will also help protect you from the sun. Steer clear of cotton-based clothes (this includes denim), as the moisture-retention of cotton can make it impossible to dry out on the trail – a real hypothermia risk depending on this season and environment you’re in.
Bring a friend. It’s fun to have company, and if you’re unsure about what direction to go or some other complication arises, there is safety in numbers. Solo hikes are great, but when you’re starting out it’s better to have a buddy.
Watch the weather. Before you go, get up-to-date forecasts. Being surprised by storms can be unpleasant, and sometimes dangerous. When you’re on your hike, periodically check the skies to see what’s going on around you. Sometimes bad weather moves in earlier than forecasted. Knowing what the weather will hold should and will affect your attire and what other gear you bring.
Stop periodically to look around you and behind you. Things will look different on the way back to the trailhead. And noticing and remembering landmarks you see will help prevent you from getting lost.
Keep a healthy distance from wildlife. Don’t approach, feed, tease or get too close to wild animals. Our food is not good for them, and it’s never good for wildlife to associate humans with food. Getting too close to an animal could also prompt an aggressive response. Fifty yards or more is a good distance to keep from larger animals, 100 yards or more from predators. No wildlife selfie is worth your life.
Take plenty of pictures. Nothing wrong with documenting your day of fun!
IF YOU WANT TO INTRODUCE SOMEONE TO HIKING
You’ve got some experience on the trail. You’ve got the gear. And you’ve got a friend who is eager to give this hiking thing a try. Before you go…
Remember to let them set the pace. A newbie hiker likely can’t keep up with a seasoned hiker. So don’t blast your way up the trail, leaving your friend struggling to keep up. Let them dictate how hard you all go.
Consider the difficulty of the route. You might be used to bushwhacking, scrambles, airy cliffs and gnarly weather. But your friend might not. Your rad adventure might send your buddy running for home, never to hike again. Suggest something doable by taking into consideration your partner’s experience, skills, fitness and tolerance for Type 2 fun.
Don’t overwhelm your partner with advice and warnings. It’s not a bad thing to do a gear check before a hike. And a few friendly pointers are always good. But if your entire trip is dominated by instructions, admonitions and criticism, you’ll leave your friend feeling cold. You might even lose a friend. Let your bud enjoy the sights, sounds, smells and overall experience of a good hike.
But don’t be afraid to take charge if things go sideways. When something goes wrong – or could go wrong – you might be quick to recognize it while your noob partner is not. That’s a good place to step in.
Keep it fun. Whatever it takes to make the experience enjoyable, do that. Light conversation, deep discussions, photo ops, showing off a favorite view – all those things can make a hike a memorable adventure and not just a long, strenuous walk.
There’s a saying among long-distance through-hikers that applies to any hike. They say “HYOH,” an acronym for “hike your own hike.” In other words, you do you. Don’t feel you have to live up to anyone’s expectations, replicate something you saw on the ‘Gram, or match others’ feats. Make it your own.
And lastly, if you find you don’t enjoy hiking, that’s OK, too. There’s no sense in punishing yourself because you think you should like it.