This is it. This is the big year—the year you hit the trails and commune with nature. Where to begin, though? Here are a few tips that will help you get (and stay) on track safely and easily.
#1: Join the Club
They say there’s safety in numbers, an adage that’s especially true when it comes to greenhorns. One of the best ways to stay safe while getting some experience is to sign up for hikes organized by a club or meet-up in your area. There are hiking organizations across the country, and many (though not all) cater to beginners. You’ll get some great guidance, and you’ll make some new friends. Regardless, always let someone at home know where you’re hiking and when you plan to return and check in with him or her.
#2: Get Into Condition
A gazelle is one thing; a mountain goat is another. Being able to easily run the flats and gently rolling hills along the road or at the park doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ready to tackle the steep grades, switchbacks, scree-filled stretches, and rocky scrambles out there on the trails. When selecting a hike, take into account your level of conditioning as well as any chronic ailments, allergies, or injuries. Then train as needed—even if this just means a few weeks of trotting on a treadmill set at increasing inclines and trekking up and down some steep hills.
#3: Start Local
Doing day hikes in familiar terrain, climate, and altitude will let you enjoy yourself and safely get some experience and conditioning. The last things you should be worried about your first few times out are acclimatization, unfamiliar flora and fauna, a pulled muscle, or the need to suddenly develop special-forces survival skills. Research well-marked trails on the websites of the state and national parks closest to you. Start with shorter, easier hikes, and build up to longer more rigorous routes before tackling hikes in unfamiliar locales.
#4: Get the Right Gear
It’s really important to have the right footwear, attire, packs, and equipment for your skill level, the length of your trip, and the locale/terrain. Staffers in the hiking department of your local sporting goods store should be able to provide guidance. Just be sure that they’re as informed about hiking (i.e., they’re hikers themselves) as they are about the merchandise offered by various manufacturers. If they don’t work hard to assess your hiking needs, selling you just what you need and no more, head to another store.
#5: Pack for Safety
You want to keep that pack light, but, even on shorter hikes, you should have a first-aid kit (including any medication you need for allergies or other conditions), a GPS device, a compass, a rain poncho, water filters and purification tablets, a Swiss Army knife, a flashlight, extra batteries, and sufficient water and food. A plastic-metallic thermal blanket will help ward off hypothermia. Some fold up to the size of a deck of cards, and all are lightweight, so there’s no reason not to pack one for emergency purposes. If you’re still conditioning, bring a hiking stick or poles; collapsible/telescoping versions are very portable. Don’t forget your camera and binoculars!
#6: Stay Healthy: Flora and Fauna
Even in your home terrain, familiarize yourself with plants or animals that might pose a threat. Also, visit the website of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to study up on area insect-borne diseases. In some places, tick-carried Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever and mosquito-carried West Nile virus and malaria are real concerns. Regardless, protect yourself by wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts and using repellant with at least 20% DEET. Avoid drinking unfiltered and unpurified water. Even in the U.S., freshwater can be contaminated with bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Again, the CDC website has info on water-borne diseases.
#7: Stay Healthy: The Elements
Layered clothing appropriate to the season lets you peel things off or put things on as needed. For the first layer, opt for garments made of fabric that wicks sweat away from your skin, where it evaporates more readily—keeping you more comfortable whether it’s hot or cold. Protect yourself from the sun with a hat, sunglasses, and broad-spectrum (UVA and UVB) sunscreen and lip balm that have an SPF of at least 15. Finally, prevent dehydration—or worse, heat or sunstroke—by drinking lots of water, especially when hiking at higher altitudes, where dehydration sets in more rapidly.
#8: Practice Good Trail Etiquette
First of all: stay on the trail. Wandering onto untrammeled ground is unwise (think poison ivy) or even dangerous (think twisted ankles or getting lost). It’s also bad for the environment. Even on the trail, try not to disrupt the flora by walking single file or in pairs and by resisting the temptation to pick up any natural “souvenirs.” It should go without saying that you don’t feed or disturb any animals you encounter. Second: follow all the park’s rules. They’re in place to protect you and to minimize environmental impact. Finally, end your hike carrying whatever you had with you at the start—and no more.
Do you have more safety tips that you live by when hiking? Share them with us in the comments below!