Hiking is a pastime open to people of all walks of life: young and old,
athlete-level fit and…err, not so much. Requiring no special training,
skills, or fancy equipment, it's a downright democratic pursuit that
serves up enjoyment, scenery, exercise, and mental stimulation all in
one deeply satisfying package.
If you’re considering dipping your toes into the perambulatory waters,
we say—DO IT! Hiking connects you to your primal roots and to the
natural world, provides a hearty physical workout, and sharpens your
senses and cognition alike. It’s also a wonderful bonding activity and
social outlet among family and friends, and a way to enjoy some of the
loveliest scenery you’ll ever experience firsthand—whether at the grand
scale (glacier-fed lake, epic canyon) or the small (a sunny glade, say,
in the middle of a county park’s woods).
Here’s a little Hiking 101 to get you going on what can be an endlessly
fulfilling lifelong activity!
What to Wear Hiking
Breathable, insulating, and (mostly) fast-drying, synthetic fabrics and
wool make the best all-around hiking layers. On a hot, dry summer amble,
though, you may be perfectly comfortable in a cotton T-shirt.
Nothing spoils a hike like inadequate clothing in the face of an abrupt
weather change. Bring an insulating layer such as a fleece vest or
pullover as well as a water-resistant or waterproof shell. Protecting
yourself from the sun is paramount: Apply sunblock of an adequate SPF
rating and wear sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat. A bandanna around the
neck also helps.
It’s always a good idea to have a warm hat and gloves/mittens in your
pack, and depending on the setting and the season you may also want to
bring along rainpants and a rainhat.
As you might imagine, footwear ranks at the top of the equipment heap
for a hiker. There aren’t necessarily hard-and-fast rules here: You’ll
see some unconventional kicks out there on the trail, because what
ultimately matters is an individual hiker’s comfort and personal
preference. Some favor low-cut trail-running or hiking shoes for their
lightweight, springy feel; others gravitate toward the greater
ruggedness and support offered by heavy-soled backpacking boots that
extend above the ankle. Still others spend as much time as they can in
their hiking sandals.
Much depends, of course, on how much and where you’ll be hiking. Many
who trek up Colorado Plateau slot canyons, for example, favor tennis
shoes for the task. The most robust sandals, meanwhile, won’t cut it for
It may (and probably will) take some trial-and-error to find the hiking
footwear that best suits you and the sort of hiking you’re pursuing.
Remember to break in any boots or shoes before a long dayhike or
backpacking trip: Wear them around the house and around town, then give
them a spin out on the trail.
What to Bring on a Hike: The Ten Essentials
We’ve written here at the Mountain House blog before about the Ten
Essentials, the Mountaineers’ classic list of fundamentals that every
traveler in the backcountry should have on hand. This includes not just
backpackers and alpinists but also dayhikers, who never know when a
wrong turn, sudden storm, or serious injury might leave them stuck in
the wilds longer than they intended. Being prepared for such situations
can make a critical difference.
So get in the habit of double-checking for these items before you hit
the trail, whether it’s particularly remote or not.
Navigation (map, compass, GPS, etc.)
Sun Protection (sunscreen, sunglasses, sun hat, bandanna, etc.)
Insulation (outerwear, extra layers)
Illumination (headlamp, flashlight, collapsible lantern, extra
Fire-making Supplies (matches/lighter/firestarter, emergency tinder,
Repair (knife, fixit kits for gear, duct tape)
Nutrition (at least one day’s worth of extra food)
Hydration (water treatment system, extra water)
Emergency Shelter (tarp, bivy, emergency blanket, poncho, etc.)
You can significantly reduce knee strain on a hike by using trekking
poles on the trail. Besides generally distributing and diminishing your
body’s exertion, these collapsible poles also boost your surefootedness
over challenging terrain (talus, steep slopes, riverbeds, etc.) and
serve plenty of secondary functions—including anchoring an emergency
Where to Hike
Hiking tends to be defined as an activity in a “natural” or relatively
undeveloped setting, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ease into the
activity via urban walkabouts. Strap on a daypack and put it through
some mileage on city sidewalks: It’s great approach for transitioning
into wilder rambles and a means
of staying conditioned when weather, work schedules, or other factors
keep you from escaping to the nearest park or forest.
If you’re never really hiked before, it makes sense to pursue your first
hiking trips on short, well-signed, well-graded front-country paths.
That might be the trail network in a large urban greenspace, a
campground path in a state forest, or an interpretive trail in a
national park. An organized hike by a ranger, naturalist, or some other
guide is an excellent way to get comfortable with the routine of hiking.
These are often advertised by local public parks and forests, outdoor
stores and schools, land trusts and conservation groups, and the like.
The Next Frontier: Backpacking?
Some people are content to stick to dayhiking exclusively, and that’s
perfectly fine. But if you’re lamenting the fact you need to get back to
the trailhead before dark when you feel you’re accessing increasingly
tantalizing countryside and really getting into an on-trail groove,
perhaps backpacking—which, of course, is simply hiking spread out across
multiple days—is something to investigate.
If you want to sample a bit of the rhythm of backpacking without actual
doing your first overnighter quite yet, consider packing a backcountry
stove in your pack alongside a tasty Mountain
House meal, and turn lunch into a trailside cookout. Then
take a stab at a night out in the woods, selecting a close-to-home area
and a low-mileage hike in for the inaugural event.