How to Plan & Enjoy a Hiking Trip
Have you spent too long looking at random Facebook and Instagram posts depicting images of mountains and rivers and a hiker, boots laced with the sunset disappearing in the distance? Do you look enviously at photos of people camping, gathered around a roaring fire with a beautifully erected tent in the foreground? Have you had to sit around listening to endless tales from your friends or family, regaling you with adventures from the wilderness and once-in-a-lifetime animal encounters while you sit longing, but unsure of how to replicate their experience?
No matter where you live in the world you are probably closer to some sublime hiking trails than you actually realize. Taking your first steps towards an outdoor adventure may seem daunting, and perhaps you’re uncertain as to whether the payoff is worth the effort, but pushing through the boundaries of your comfort zone will change the way you see vacations, and the whole world for that matter, forever.
If you are intrigued enough to read on then you have passed the point of no return. Its time to put one foot forward, stop thinking of the possibility and begin to make it a reality. This article will serve as your first step on that journey, a guide to help you prepare and execute your first hiking trip.
One of the first obstacles in going on a hiking vacation is the daunting task of selecting where to go. Like finding yourself staring at a ten page restaurant menu, it can all get too much. Start by breaking it down, do you want forest hikes or desert? Nature or geology? If you live in the US then you have 58 national parks to select from and 154 national forests. Thats 178 million acres of land to go hike on.
If you want forest, you may wish to go to the Smoky Mountains, Olympic National Park or Yosemite. For dry coniferous hikes perhaps consider the Rocky Mountains in the US or over the border in Canada. For Canyon hikes you have Canyonlands or Arches in Utah. You may just wish to remain local.
It’s a good idea to tap into the resources at your fingertips. My favorite website for hiking information is “All Trails”. It not only has a great web resource but it also has a superb app which you can use whilst on your hike to find your position, locate trailheads and monitor conditions etc. By logging in you can search for the best rated hikes in a location of your choice, and even filter your results by distance or difficulty.
Almost anywhere you go, you’ll be able to find a selection of hikes with varying degrees of difficulty, so pick your location based on what you’d like to see. One tip I would give is that in my experience, estimated times and difficulty levels tend to be based on people of lower fitness and as such, you rarely take as long as the official hiking times suggest, with that being said, only you know how fit you are and how fast you can walk!
Where to Stay
So you have your general idea of where, time to book accommodation, or is it? There are plenty of options for your hiking trips in terms of where to stay including motels, plush hotels and campsites. My advice is go big or go home, if the opportunity is there and the weather is okay, pack that tent. Choosing to camp will give you the best opportunity to see the most the outdoors and get you closest to the hiking trails. If you camp in the US national forests or national parks you will find hiking trails often begin at the campsites. Though convenience is a factor, the main reason I prefer to camp is because it only heightens the experience of delving into nature and escaping your busy everyday life. If you decide to do longer overnight hikes then of course this will be your only option. Get yourself a lightweight, easy to assemble tent such as the Half Dome model sold at REI.
For information on the location of campsites and the hiking trails that can be found within and around them check out the government website link here. Through this link you will be able to search for campsites and make bookings, look ahead of time especially with campsites in popular locations as spaces will fill up months ahead.
If you decide to go down the motel route, you may wish to book ahead however I usually book whilst on the road as this gives me the freedom to move around or change plans depending on how I feel on any given day. My usual tactic is to simply enter the name of a small town nearby your preferred hiking area into expedia.com and look for the deals. Usually it will be possible to find motel rooms for under $50 a night, sometimes significantly less when in remote locations, just be aware of the day and season as these can severely impact prices.
Clothing and Equipment
I’m not going to sugar coat it, you’re going to need to go shopping. I know I know, but it’s fun I promise! My favorite place in the world (aside from being in the great outdoors) is an outdoors store. Look to be getting these:
Good walking boots. You don’t want to mess around when it comes to your feet, whether you come back raving about your hikes or crying about them will largely depend on the state of your two lovely appendages. Boots should be flexible, lightweight, ventilated and waterproof if possible.
Marino Wool Socks. See point 1. These socks are made from a New Zealand wool which is ludicrously comfy and stays warm when wet. If you want to avoid blisters, invest.
A Backpack. Don’t get carried away with size, you want to be light and free on your walks. Grab a pack which is light, stick to day packs unless you’re planning to jump into overnight hikes straight away. It should be well fitted for your back, have room to pack some snacks and water and be waterproof. If you do purchase a non waterproof pack just be sure to get a cover for it.
A waterproof Jacket/Pants. You can get tied in knots looking at these. If you research you’ll find endless categories such as Water Resistant vs Waterproof/Non Breathable, Wind Proof vs Wind Resistant and Hard vs Soft Shell. Essentially you’ll want something which is waterproof, and has breathability. The best types are laminates rather than coatings, but the trade off is price.
On the Hike: Do’s and Don’ts
Pack In – Pack Out
It can feel like an annoyance at times but this is hiking 101, especially if you’re on a multiway hike in a beautiful setting, they’re only beautiful if we keep them that way. We will usually pack our trash into food bags and into bear proof cans if it’s necessary. Take a few bags, some for toilet waste, some for food wrappers and packaging etc.
You won’t need to think about this on all of your hikes, but their is a penchant for hiking trails to find themselves in bear habitats. In the US, about 35% of the country, is home to black bears. If you go hiking in these places you want to plan appropriately.
Bear encounters are rare and injuries even more so, but that is largely because most people obey some simple rules which are mostly common sense. Make noise, either chat away whilst walking or wear bear bells to warn animals of your arrival, bears will largely move away to avoid you. Keep food sealed, and if you are camping be sure to keep food sealed and in bear cans which are relatively cheap, so bears do not learn to attack for food rewards.
Take More Water
You are going to be more thirsty than you think, I promise. Whatever you feel like carrying, take a little extra. If it’s hot and dry then this becomes ever more important, your body can lose 2 liters of water an hour in extreme heat conditions, don’t let it happen. Each year 250 hikers have to be rescued from the Grand Canyon alone due to dehydration. If it’s too hot, don’t go hiking, be sensible.
High Energy, Low Weight
Take some food, be be clever about what you take with you. Keep the weight down, there’s nothing worse than lugging a silly amount of gear around on day hikes. Oat bars, nuts, dried fruit (I particularly like the flattened banana from Trader Joes) and some chocolate is also a good thing. Carbs will keep the energy coming. If you’re overnighting, you can buy pretty delicious dehydrated meals from most outdoors stores for around $7 a pack which weigh almost nothing.
Pack a kit, its unlikely, but should you have an accident its good to have some basic supplies. Bandages, plasters, ibuprofen and antiseptic wipes are a must have.
Like I mentioned above, you really want to avoid slugging around with a ton of useless extras on your shoulders. Go for the simple things, food, water, a first aid aid kit, a camera if you wish and maybe a waterproof if it’s looking uncertain. Anything else is deadweight.
Underestimate your Trail
Most hikes will have information at the trailhead regarding length and difficulty, they tend to play it safe, but think about what you are really capable of. We tend to go at maybe 2 miles every hour if conditions are nice, but if it’s your first time hiking and the trail is new to you, give yourself more time than you think you’ll need. If you go faster than you plan thats fine, it means you can take more stops and enjoy the scenery!
Forget the Mosquitoes
Last year we visited the Upper Peninsula in Michigan for a few days of hiking and wow, did we get a surprise! In the porcupine mountains (which are fabulous by the way) we arrived after the first rain in weeks and hit the trails, only to find every mosquito in North America had come to party. I covered myself head to toe buy still took more bites than I’ve ever had on a hike, I counted 15 on one hand. Two Days later just down the road near Munising we went hiking and didn’t find one insect. Bottom line, you never know, so be prepared. Insect repellent, head nets and bite cream are all useful investments. If you know you’re in their territory, make sure your wear long pants and sleeves.
Now if this seems like a lot to take in, remember the process of planning a trip is gradual. The majority of hiking trips involve beautiful scenery, mind blowing hiking trails and a sprinkling of wildlife. Use the resources available to you and a little common sense and you’ll have the trip of a lifetime, welcome to the club!
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