Hiking through the Great Outdoors is a rewarding and relaxing experience. Public land in America has thousands of hiking trails, waiting for you to take them on.
If you’re starting your journey as a hiker, then you probably have no idea of what to expect during your first hike. Fortunately, you don’t need any special skills, and as long as you can walk, and you have a certain level of physical fitness, then you’ll be fine on the trails.
However, there are a few things that new hikers need to learn before they head off into the wilderness. Let’s take a look at a few tips to help you stay safe and enjoy your time on the trail.
Choose a Beginner Hike
The first thing beginner hikers need to do before they head out on a hike is to assess their strengths and weaknesses. Most hiking venues have two or three different trails: for beginner, intermediate, and expert hikers.
As a beginner, it’s crucial that you understand your limits. Setting out on an advanced trail means that you’ll face vertical walls, difficult terrain, and many other challenges that can be outright dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Beginners will do well with a 5-mile hike over terrain that’s flat or that has a slight elevation. You might think that 5-miles doesn’t sound too far. However, there’s a vast difference between walking on a hiking trail, and walking on the street.
The uneven walking surface on a trail, and the pitfalls that occur during your hike, burn through your energy and adrenaline stores quickly. It’s also important to note that a 5-mile hike over flat terrain is far less stressful than a 5-mile hike on a steep elevation.
Pack Your Hiking Essentials
There are ten hiking essentials you need to take with you on your excursion. You’ll need to pack these items to stay safe outdoors and prepare you in case of an overnight stay in the wilderness due to an emergency occurring on your hike, such as breaking your ankle.
You can expand on each of the 10-items to meet your hiking needs. Make your equipment adjustments depending on the length and location of your hike.
Essential Hiking Items
- Navigation tools – A GPS or map of the location
- Clothing (light or insulating, depending on the environmental conditions at the site)
- Sunscreen and sunglasses
- Light – Torch or headlamp
- A first-aid kit
- Fire-making materials (lighter, matches)
- Repair kits and tooling
- Food (take some extra, in case you have to overnight on the trail due to an emergency)
- Water – Take hydration aids like Gatorade or Powerade with you to provide electrolytes
- Shelter for emergencies (tents or plastic bags)
- Hiking Watch
- Hiking Boots
Understand the Trail
Before you head out on the trail, make sure you have a thorough understanding of the terrain. We recommend that you purchase a physical map for your hike. Many hikers rely on their cellphones for maps. However, if you’re out in the wilderness, getting a signal will be an issue.
Learning to read a traditional map is a skill that every hiker needs to learn. If you’re heading out on the trail, and it’s raining, then protect your map by putting it in a plastic Ziploc bag when not in use. This strategy keeps it dry, and you won’t have to worry about the rain ruining your map.
Relying on your smartphone for your direction is haphazard, and can lead to you getting lost in unforgiving terrain.
We recommend that you take some time to study the map of the area before you start your hike. Look for landmarks you can use to let you know you’re on the right path.
As a final tip regarding maps and GPS – if you are carrying a smartphone as your directional device, make sure you keep it in flight mode. When smart devices get out of range of cell towers, they continue to search for a signal. Unfortunately, this searching requires plenty of energy, and your battery will go flat in no time.
Keep your phone on airplane mode, and only turn airplane mode off when you want to check your location.
A handheld GPS is the most effective form of tracking your location. However, all hikers should understand how to read a traditional map. If something happens to your device or GPS, how will you find your way back? Beginners can benefit from improving their map reading skills, and using the GPS as a back-up.
Time Your Hike
If you’re heading out to a National Park for a hike, you better be aware that there are probably hundreds of other people planning the same trip as you.
Therefore, the earlier you start on your hike, the better. Try to get to your location as the sun is rising. Walking in the early morning is far more enjoyable than slugging along in the midday heat. Most people arrive between the hours of 7 am, and 9 am, so make sure you get there early to get a head start on the crowds.
The 2-Minute Preparation Session
After settling on a location and date for your hike, it’s time to do some homework.
Many National Parks require hikers to purchase permits before they hit the trail. If you arrive at the park on the day of your hike, and you forget to buy a permit, you could end up facing a fine from the park administration.
Fortunately, many parks issue hiking permits for free. The permit acts as a means of letting the park know how many people are out on the trail. This strategy helps the park officials avoid overcrowding of the trials, and it also allows them to track how many individuals are out on a hike.
It’s also a good idea to call the park before you leave your home. The weather conditions could be very different at the hiking location, and driving all the way there to find that it snowed out is a disappointing experience that no hiker wants to happen to them and their friends.
Tell Friends and Family Where You’re Going
This tip could end up saving your life. If you’re planning on any sort of hike, with or without friends accompanying you, make sure you let someone know where you are going and when you will be back.
Accidents happen in the Great Outdoors, and unless you want to be the next star of “127 Hours,” then you need to ensure people know where to find you if you go missing.
Take an Easy Pace
When hiking, it’s important to remember that it’s not a race. Part of the thrill of hiking is getting out into nature, and if your mission to finish the trail as quickly as you can, you’ll miss all of the natural wonders around you.
Setting a fast walking pace might seem like a good idea, but it will wear you out quickly. As we mentioned earlier, hiking is very different from taking a run or walk around your block. The name of the game when it comes to hiking is conserving your energy.
If you’re hiking in a group, then make sure you stick with people walking at the same pace as you. It’s typical for the fitter people in the group to take off at a faster pace. If you decide to follow them, you could find yourself on the brink of exhaustion later in the hike.
Remember – Slow and steady wins the race (not that there’s a race going on, but you get the idea).
If you do separate from your group, make sure you have a rendezvous point planned where you can all meet up later for a headcount.
Watch Your Step
Hikers need to understand that walking on a trail is very different from walking on the street. The uneven surface means that’s it’s possible to misstep and hurt your foot, ankle, knee, or hips in the process.
If you’re going out hiking, make sure you wear the right footwear. Hiking boots are the preferred choice, especially for long walks. However, if you’re hiking a short trail in forgiving terrain, then you can get away with a pair of cross-trainers or specialized hiking shoes with low tops.
High-top hiking shoes offer your ankles the best protection, and there’s less chance of you spraining something.
Watching where you step not only keeps you safe from injury, but it can also save your life. There are hundreds of thousands of rattlesnakes on public land, all across America. Many hikers receive rattlesnake bites. These reptiles blend so well into the surrounding environment, by the time you know they’re there, they are already striking you.
Ticks are also a concern for hikers. Lyme disease is a terrible condition affecting thousands of Americans. Avoid tick bites by looking out for nests in the long grass.
Never wear headphones and listen to music during your hike. This practice removes your mind from the natural environment, increasing the chances of an accident occurring on the trail.
Learn Correct Hiking Etiquette
While public land is free for any American to use, hikers need to understand trail etiquette before they start walking.
- Mountain bikers also make use of trails to ride, and you’ll most likely encounter them on your travels sooner or later. The rules say that mountain bikers have to stop and wait for you to pass. However, most hikers simply move out of their way and let them ride past without stopping.
- Mountain bikers are generally moving a high speed, and they need to maintain their balance to ensure they stay safe on the bike. Coming round the corner to encounter a bunch of hikers can cause a severe accident and injury to the rider, and you, if you don’t move out of the way.
- If you encounter other hikers on your trail, then the hiker going uphill has the right of way. If you’re walking downhill, stand to the side, wave, smile, and say “hello” as the other person or group passes.
- If you’re talking on a hike, then try not to bring shop-talk into the environment. You’re there to get away from it all. The last thing people at the back of the group need to hear is how hard your work week was, and how your boss is bringing you down.
- It should go without saying that you should have your phone on airplane mode, and don’t take any calls during the hike unless it’s an emergency. Unplug, unwind, escape from technology, and enjoy the wilderness.
People take up hiking to connect with nature, so leave your wireless speaker at home. People are more interested in hearing the sounds of the birds and the bees, rather than the latest track from Justin Bieber’s album.
If you’re bringing your dog along for the hike, make sure you keep it on a leash. Even if your dog is well-trained, it might spook other hikers that don’t know how to behave around these animals. Respect the other hikers on the trail, and keep your dog under control at all times.
Keep Your Feet on the Trail
When you’re hiking, you’ll probably come across thinner trails or shortcuts leading off of the main trail. Never take these shortcuts, and stay on course. Not only do shortcuts and secondary paths increase your risk of getting lost, but they damage the local habitat as well.
If you encounter puddles of mud on your hike, walk through them instead of moving off of the trail. Moving around the puddle broadens the damage of the footpath on the immediate environment. Remember – animals use these trails as well, and when you wreck the trail, you’re spoiling their home.
Wrapping Up – Leave No Traces
Our final tip for beginner hikers is to leave to trace, other than your footprints. While walking, you’ll find it surprising at how many Cliff Bar wrappers and any other food packaging you see on the side of the trail.
If you want to help pout nature, then take a plastic bag with you and fill it with trash as you walk. Remember to keep your rubbish in a container or bag, and then throw it away when you get home.