13 Seemingly Obvious Tips for the Amateur Hiker, That Might Not Be So Obvious
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, COLORADO—Hiking is nothing more than taking a long walk. One could wax forever about the psychological and physical benefits of getting back to our roots in nature, exercising our bodies somewhere other than a sterilized gym, and clearing our minds for just a few hours. I’m prone to doing just that, but for now I'll skip the "philosophical diatribes" tag and talk about a few things that you should probably know before going on a hike. Even though it is just a long walk, like any trip, being prepared will give you the most out of your journey.
1) Food, food, food. Bring food. Bring more food than you need. Don’t bring the kitchen sink, but a few apples, bananas, or an extra Clif Bar or two will go a long way towards happiness and satisfaction. Nothing will make you want to turn back to the trailhead more than gnawing pangs of hunger, which are guaranteed to strike after burning a few hundred calories. When in doubt, throw some snacks in the bag.
2) On the same note, bring enough water. Just…do it. Hydrate accordingly before you set off; nothing is worse than getting dry mouth on the first mile, chugging a bunch of water, and having it slosh around your stomach as you traverse ridgelines and scramble over rocky outcrops. Get yourself a good water bottle, or even a Camelbak. Sure, it might look a bit douchey to wear one of these, but you’ll quickly appreciate why people do so when you get thirsty under the hot sun. If you’re hardcore, bring a Steripen that you can use to drink water from a stream or river. They’ll kill any bacteria and ensure that you don’t spend the next six months on the shitter.
3) Start earlier than you think. I’m inspired to write this by prancing about Colorado in the summertime, and afternoon thunderstorms are always a “thing”. Nothing spoils a great day in the outdoors like having to turn around because you see thunderheads off in the distance, or huddling for shelter underneath a tree as freezing rain pelts you and your t-shirt for a mere five minutes, ruining the rest of your day as you shiver from the wet cotton hugging your body. Hit the trail early, and reduce your risk of being caught in poor weather.
4) That being said, bring a rain jacket. Yes, it’s a pain in the ass to carry in your bag...it’s bulky, there’s no good spot for it, it gets in the way of your camera and your oranges, and you might not even need it. If you’re going hiking in stealth-mode (bringing as little as possible so you can move as fast as possible), you won’t want to bring a rain jacket. But it’s also the one thing that you’ll most regret not having when you get caught in a downpour. Bite the bullet and buy a rain jacket, and keep it in your bag.
5) Another moisture-related misconception is that it's OK to wear a t-shirt. We associate t-shirts with casual endeavors, and hiking is largely a casual endeavor. However, t-shirts are made of cotton, and cotton gets wet easily. It also takes a long time to dry, unless you set it out in the direct sunlight for a half-hour, which you won’t do. This is an issue because you sweat when you hike, especially when you wear a backpack, and sweat becomes exceedingly uncomfortable it's windy. So again, bite the bullet, and buy a sweat-wicking t-shirt to wear when hiking. You’ll be eternally grateful that you aren’t cruising around in a sopping, cold, shirt with nothing to change into.
6) It should go without saying, but wear sturdy, comfortable shoes. Running shoes might be OK, but you’re best off with a pair of dedicated hiking shoes. Your soles will be forever grateful to your wallet for the sacrifice it’s made; go the extra miles and get waterproof boots and you’ll be set for years. Once broken in, you can feel the difference—you’ll be much more confident climbing rocks, descending on gravel, and getting them dirty than you will be with your fancy-ass Nike running shoes.
7) Keep a bandana in your hiking bag. You can tie it around your face to keep out dust, around your forehead to ward off sweat, wet it and lay it on your neck to cool you off and save your precious skin from the sun, or, in the case of a dire emergency, use it as a tourniquet. Small, cheap, and easy to toss in your pack, it’s a no-brainer to have a bandana on you at all times.
8) It also never hurts to keep a whistle in your bag. Sure, it’s another worst-case scenario item, but it’s also one that you’ll be eternally grateful for having should you need it. If you find yourself trapped and need to call for help, a whistle will help. It’s also a cheaper (although less effective) alternative to bear spray.
9) About that...you should probably know what to do in case you see a large mammalian predator. It goes without saying that you should never approach an animal larger than you, but for the dumbasses of the world, here are a few tips:
What to do when you see a moose: if a moose charges you, run away. Zigzag in between trees and other obstacles to keep it away from you, you’ll confuse it and it’ll have a hard time catching you if you make sudden, unpredictable movements. It should be easy to shake.
What to do when you see a bear: If a bear charges you, make yourself as big and scary as possible. Scream, shout, stomp around—show it who's boss. They are known for bluff charging, so even if they run straight at you, they are trying to intimidate you, and will likely pull back at the last moment. Terrifying, yes, but also fact. Be wary of bears with young. They'll get territorial. If you have pepper spray, use it if they are charging. Avoid getting the cloud of pepper spray in your own eyes, incapacitating you instead of the bear. If they look like they're going to make contact, fall onto the ground in the fetal position, and cover the back of your neck. If a brown bear makes physical contact with you, play dead. They'll lose interest. Keep playing dead until they are long gone. However, if a black bear makes physical contact with you, fight back with every ounce of strength you have. They're more likely to keep attacking if you play dead, and more likely to move along if you fight with tooth and nail.
10) Few people today are going to bring a map hiking, but it’s still recommended. Knowing where you are and where you are going is a wise and sensible thing to do; at least study the trail map in detail (of take a picture of it with your phone!) if you're not bringing a map. Regardless of whether you have a map or not, bring a compass. It’ll tell you which direction you’re going, and you’ll have a better sense of where you are. It’s also fun to know when and where the sun is setting, and be able to orient yourself in the greater world. It’s fun to know which direction Wyoming is, isn’t it?
11) If you’re not going to bring a map, at least bring a charger for your phone. I have this Anker pocket charger, which is usually good for about two charges on my iPhone. Keep it in your bag, fully charged…because you never know. If you get lost, you might end up using the GPS function on your phone, draining the battery. We all know that 21% can become 0% in a matter of seconds, inducing panic in many. You shouldn’t rely on your phone in the wilderness, but many of us see it as a backup device, and having a backup for your backup will make you feel safer.
12) Bring a good book. I never go anywhere without a good book. I never know when I’ll find the perfect little spot to take a break, have a snack, and recharge my batteries…and I rue the day that I could have spent a good hour reading a book in a beautiful locale, but can’t because I don’t have one.
13) Lastly, don’t forget to bring your common sense. Humans lived for tens of thousands of years without the trappings of modern convenience to which we’ve become so accustomed, and you can do it too. If you find yourself in a bad spot, don’t panic. Relax; your ancestors did this, and you can too. Use your common sense to get you out of a bind, and you’ll be fine.
Yes, hiking is just taking a long walk, but it’s not like strolling Fifth Avenue in Manhattan…it’s a relaxing way to get back to our roots, and use our bodies in a robust, productive way. You’ll feel more limber, stronger, and better about your health after a long hike. You’re also likely to find that your mind is less cluttered—there’s not much that a good long walk in the woods can’t cure.