So, you’re ready to give hiking or backpacking a try are ya? That’s fantastic! It’s been scientifically proven that spending even small amounts of time out in nature away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life does wonders for both our mental and physical health. Before you set out for your first (or next) adventure though there are a few vital pieces of gear and knowledge you need to have. Take a look at these 5 tips for beginner hikers and backpackers.
1. Feet First
Hiking involves spending lots of time on our feet. Sometimes the terrain beneath us is flat and non-technical, such as a paved trail. Other times it can be dirt, sand, or forest debris that makes the route a bit more tricky or dangerous. Protecting your feet, ankles, and knees are vital when exploring outdoors. Rocky or slick terrain (such as wet rocks or logs) can take out an ankle or twist a knee before you have time to say “ouch”. This is why a high-quality hiking shoe or mid to high boot is a must.
Deciding on what type of footwear to use is mainly a personal preference, but it’s advisable to pick your footwear based on the terrain that you will be hiking or backpacking on. Smooth and level trails or paved paths are the least likely to cause an ankle or knee injury under normal conditions. A “trail runner” or tennis shoe will suffice just fine in this situation. They are light and generally breathable which will keep your feet cool and dry on those longer journeys. I wear the Altra Lone Peak 3.0 trail runners as my day to day shoe, as well as a light hiker on non-technical trails. I’ve found that wearing hiking boots when traveling long distances on paved pathways can cause some pretty bad foot and lower leg pain. This is mainly due to the rigid and harder soles which are meant to give more aggressive traction and support on more technical terrain.
When it comes to backpacking or hiking long distances on uneven and rocky trails you will definitely want to ensure that you have a sturdy and supportive hiking shoe or boot. There are several brands that make low-high top hiking boots. One of my favorites is Keen. I have owned the Targhee II Mid hiking boots for quite some time and love them. They are very sturdy with an aggressive sole that offers good traction. These boots also have a wider toe-box area which allows your toes to spread out properly when walking. As someone that has had issues with bunions in the past, this is a saving grace for me. Other popular brands include Merrell, Vasque, and Asolo. My final piece of advice for choosing footwear is to try several models on in person before purchasing. You’re going to be spending a lot of time in your hiking shoes or boots and you want to make sure they are comfortable and fit properly.
2. Hydration, Hydration, Hydration
You’d be surprised how many times I’ve encountered hikers on very long trips that did not have water with them. There are a number of excuses they’ve given such as “Oh I’m not planning on being out here that long” or “It’s not hot out today so I should be fine without it.” Both of these excuses have the ability to become deadly in certain circumstances. Whether it’s mid-summer or the deep of winter, we all need to stay hydrated when out on the trail. Just because you are not actively sweating does not mean that you are not losing water. Here are two popular ways to carry water with you on your adventures.
Bottled water is probably the most common way that backpackers and hikers carry their fluids. There are hundreds of brands and different sizes of bottled water available out there. I personally use SmartWater bottles in the 1L size on most of my trips. These bottles are tall and slender which makes it super easy to remove and replace them in the side pockets of my backpacks. The bottles are also made of a very durable plastic, so I don’t really worry about them getting damaged. The important thing though is not the brand or material the bottle is made of, but that you just have water with you in one way or another.
Hydration reservoirs (sometimes called Camelbaks) are another popular way of carrying fluids. This system consists of a plastic bag or bladder that typically holds from 1 to 3 liters of water. This bladder is stored in a compartment in your backpack and has a long tube that extends up and over your shoulder. This tube has a mouthpiece on it that allows you to drink water from it. I occasionally see backpackers or hikers using this method, but it is much more common among mountain bikers. There are several brands that make hydration bladders. Two of the most common are Camelbak and Osprey. One thing to note about these hydration bags is that they need to be cleaned every now and then to prevent mildew from making your water taste yucky.
3. Fuel For The Journey
Not only do we need to stay hydrated on the trail, but we also need to keep our bodies fueled. Hiking is tough work and burns a lot of calories. It’s very important to replenish those lost calories in order to maintain the energy needed to make it to your destination. Trail food is totally a matter of personal preference.
Some of my favorite trail foods include mixed nuts, beef jerky, Clif Bars, trail mix, fruit, and peanut M&M’s. Any easy to carry snack or food can be taken on a hike and consumed when you start to feel like you’re running out of energy. There’s nothing worse than being a couple miles into the wilderness when your stomach starts growling and you don’t have anything to eat. A simple search on Google for “trail food ideas” will turn up a ton of easy snacks and portable meals you can try on your next adventure. Check out this link for a great article containing 27 Healthy, Portable Hiking Snacks.
4. Covering Up
Next on our list is clothing. Layers of clothing to be exact. Hiking and backpacking in both warm and cold conditions causes us to sweat. The important thing to remember about sweat in colder climates is that once the air temperature starts to fall it can lead to hypothermia in a heartbeat. Wearing sweat-soaked clothing is not only uncomfortable, but it also helps to drastically lower our body temperature when the air begins to cool. Imagine wearing a t-shirt in the swimming pool, then getting out and standing in front of your open refrigerator for several minutes. As that water starts to cool from the ambient temperature, so does your body temperature. Soon enough you’d be shivering and it would become increasingly harder to get warm again. This is why wearing appropriate clothing is vital when out hiking or backpacking.
The key to maintaining a comfortable body temperature is layering of clothing. By layering I mean having several pieces of clothing of different warmth’s that can easily be put on or taken off as needed. For example, when I hike in the nearby woods I typically wear a synthetic material t-shirt or long sleeved shirt. Next, I may have a lightweight fleece pull-over or sweater in case it gets chilly in the dense forest where the sunlight cannot easily penetrate. If it’s a colder time of year I’ll also carry with me a fleece beanie (skull cap) and lightweight down jacket. All of these items can be taken off or put back on depending on my body temperature and comfort level.
Convertible pants are also a favorite of mine. These are pants made primarily from synthetic materials that “zip-off” at the knee. I can remove the lower part of the pants and wear them as shorts instead. I highly recommend these to my fellow hikers. The reason that I’ve mentioned synthetic materials several times is that they dry a lot faster than cotton items. Synthetic shirts and pants will easily dry next to a campfire or in the sun. This enables the wearer to avoid the chilling effect of wearing sweaty clothing.
The best way to determine what kind of clothing will work best for you is to speak to an expert in outdoor gear at your local outdoor outfitter. If there is not one near you, take a look online at what hikers wear in your area throughout the different seasons.
5. Getting There and Back
Last but definitely not least is navigation. It’s always a good idea to have a plan in place before you head out into the wilderness. Get a map of the area you are going to be exploring. Many maps can be downloaded online or picked up at nearby ranger stations in state or national parks. Always let at least one person know where you are going to be hiking/backpacking and what time you expect to be home. That way if something happens and you are stranded on your trip someone will know your general location and can send help.
If you have a cell phone, I highly recommend downloading a GPS or mapping application to assist you in getting safely to your destination and back. Two of the most common are AllTrails and Maps 3D Pro. These applications have the ability to download maps of the area you will be hiking in. They also will track your journey using GPS coordinates so that you can accurately follow your route. This also enables you to follow your track back to where you started.
An even better option than using your cell phone as a mapping device is to use a GPS unit specifically designed for navigation in the outdoors. I use a Garmin device and it always gives me accurate location and travel time information. I can also update it’s maps when needed so that I have the most accurate trail information at the touch of a button.
So there you have it. The 5 most important things to consider when venturing out on the trail. There are obviously other items that can be nice to have, but I feel these are the 5 “core” things to consider when adventuring outdoors. So tie on your boots, fill up your water bottle, grab some snacks, layer up (or down), get a map, and I’ll see you out on the trails!