How to hike: Extend a foot (either one.) Now put the other foot in front of the first. Repeat. As outdoor activities go, hiking couldn’t be much simpler, yet millions of people find it profoundly rewarding. Whether it’s an hour-long ramble in the nearest state park or a five-month trek over all 2,650 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, walking through a natural setting seems to have universal appeal.
There are many great reasons to lace up your hiking shoes and join the more than 34 million people who hike each year. It’s very good exercise. It doesn’t require a lot of equipment. There are lots of places to do it, and in most cases, it’s free. It’s family-friendly and accessible to people of a wide range of ages and abilities.
In today’s frenetic, hyper-connected world, experiences like the view from a rock outcropping, the sound of a rushing stream, the scent of a forest, or the warmth of the sunshine in a meadow are refreshing and restorative. And while the physical benefits of hiking as exercise may seem obvious, recent research has shown that hiking boosts creativity and problem-solving ability.
Planning Your Hike
When planning your initial outing, keep your goals modest, says Aaron Gorban, Director of Outdoor Leadership Training for the Appalachian Mountain Club.
“For me, it’s about fun,” Gorban says. “We’re out there to have a good time, and if it becomes an exercise in survival—‘yeah, we made it, but we didn’t have a good time’—I question whether that’s a success.”
A moderate distance without a lot of steep hills or unsteady footing will be a more pleasant experience for first-time hikers, especially children and older people. Once you get a feel for your capabilities, you can tackle more adventurous walks. “We would recommend that folks start small and build from there,” Gorban says.
Including a walk on a faraway vacation is a great idea. But most people have access to open spaces close to home, and those are ideal locations for a first outing. “If you’re in New York, you don’t need to travel to the White Mountains,” says Gorban, whose office sits at the foot of Mount Washington, in New Hampshire. “There’s a lot of more accessible state parks and even urban parks where you can get your feet wet, get your fitness up to snuff and build from there. For me, what’s great about the outdoors is that it’s accessible.”
Mount Washington, New Hampshire
State and local parks or conservation agencies often have information on their websites about hiking opportunities, including descriptions of trails and their level of difficulty. Guidebooks with hiking maps and detailed trail descriptions are widely available for sale and can often be found in public libraries. Hiking clubs are great sources of info, too. Search for them online or at Meetup.com.
How long will your hike take? You can make a pretty good guess using Naismith’s Rule, a formula devised in the 19th Century by William W. Naismith, founder of the Scottish Mountaineering Club. A reasonably fit person should allow one hour for every three miles of travel, plus 30 minutes for each 1,000 feet of elevation gain. New hikers may want to build extra time into their trip in case the going is slower than expected; if you find yourself ahead of schedule, you can use the extra time to rest, have a snack, take some photos, or simply linger in a nice spot.
"For me, what’s great about the outdoors is that it’s accessible.”
Having a destination adds to the fun. Knowing that a picturesque waterfall or a summit with a view awaits you at the end of the trail is great motivation.
If you have any question at all about your fitness, check with your doctor before your first hike.
Hiking usually takes place on well-established and well-marked trails. Even so, in areas with multiple intersecting trails, it’s easy to miss a necessary turn. You should always have a map. You’ll be confident that you’re on course, you won’t waste time with accidental detours, and you’ll enjoy tracking your progress. You may use it again, for another hike in the same area, or you can just keep it as a nice souvenir. Maps are available from state or national park visitor centers, local and chain outdoor stores, hiking and trail clubs, retailers like Amazon and National Geographic. In many cases, downloadable PDFs of hiking trails are available for use on your mobile device. Topographical maps from the U.S. Geological Survey show details of terrain and natural features, but don’t always include hiking trails.
What to Wear
While basic day hikes don’t require a lot of expensive technical clothing, a good pair of shoes is essential, and purpose-made tops and trousers can make the experience more enjoyable. Besides, it’s fun to have special clothes dedicated to your pastime.
Buy the best hiking shoes or boots you can afford. It’s best to visit a reputable retailer where the sales staff can help you choose the style and brand that meets your needs. Boots will give your ankles better support, which is helpful when walking on terrain with lots of rocks, roots, and other irregularities. Shoes have a lighter feel. Footwear made with breathable, waterproof Gore-Tex or similar fabric will keep you comfortable if you find yourself in wet terrain. The most important consideration is proper fit; let the sales staff help you find the right shoes or boots. Many experienced hikers prefer wool socks for their ability to wick away moisture.
When it comes to clothing, avoid cotton. Synthetic materials such as nylon or polyester wick away perspiration and dry quickly. Some hiking clothes offer sun and/or insect protection, and they are worth considering. Pants that convert to shorts are widely available. Dress in layers suitable for the weather you’re likely to face. Long underwear (again, wool or synthetic, not cotton) and fleece tops are called for on cool-weather hikes. A knit cap is a must in cool or cold weather, and a bucket-style hat will help keep sun off you in the summer.
Even if there’s no rain in the forecast, you should have something waterproof to wear. Many modern rain jackets are modestly priced, lightweight, breathable, and stylish enough to wear around town as a windbreaker, and they fold up to pack-friendly size. Lightweight rain jacket/pants combos are widely available, as well.
What to Carry
Obviously, the key pieces of equipment are your own two legs. But you should have a basic set of gear—for your comfort and enjoyment, and for emergency preparedness (see “The 10 Essentials,” below). And you’ll need some kind of backpack to carry it all in.
A large pack designed for overnight camping isn’t necessary. You won’t be lugging a tent, sleeping bag, or several days’ worth of food. A pack with a capacity of 20 to 30 liters is more than adequate for most day hikes. Even the moderate amount of gear needed for a day hike will be more comfortable on your back if your pack has a sternum strap on the harness (shoulder straps), a waist belt, and compression straps on the pack itself to keep your gear from shifting around. For proper fit, you should know your torso length—the measurement up your back from a line across the tops of your hips to the C7 vertebra, the knobby bone at the base of your neck.
Many hikers find it comfortable to use trekking poles, which resemble ski poles but are adjustable. Research has shown they can ease pressure on the knees as much as 25 percent, especially when walking downhill. They provide stability and balance in tricky terrain. Some models have integrated shock absorbers. Poles come in handy for other things, too, like knocking down a spider web stretched across the trail.
A binocular is a nice thing to have while hiking, to zoom in on scenic vistas or get a better look at wildlife. Many options are available; the ones with a front lens (known as the objective lens) from 42-50mm or larger offer a brighter image, but they’re also bulkier and heavier, while compact models with 20-25mm objective lenses are easier to carry. How to tell? Look at the “x” numbers in the name: 8x25 means 8-power magnification and a 25mm objective lens. (Here’s a binocular buying guide by B&H’s Chris Witt.)
Most hikers don’t have occasion to build a campfire, but if you suffer an injury or are lost at nightfall, it might become necessary. Waterproof matches or a fire starter are good things to have in your pack for emergencies. The Bear Grylls Survival Series Fire Starter also has a built-in safety whistle. Click here to see a video by Chris Witt comparing various fire-starting devices and methods.
Don’t venture out ill-equipped, but don’t overdo gear, either. “I’m looking at the trailhead out my window, and I see people with everything but the kitchen sink, which is going to weigh them down, and on the other side of the coin are people who have a water bottle and that’s it,” Gorban says. Aim for the “sweet spot” where you have what you need but aren’t overly burdened. Packs have a way of getting heavier as the day goes along.
Hydration, Nutrition, and Protection
The National Park Service recommends hikers in the Grand Canyon consume a gallon of water per day, at a maximum rate of one quart per hour. You may not need that much if you’re not hiking a steep trail in the Arizona sun, but you do need some. Your body will lose water through perspiration and respiration. You should have the water you need for the day, plus more—you could be out longer than you planned if you get lost or experience an injury. The classic hiking water bottle is the 32 oz Nalgene; plan on one of those or a similar size bottle for each member of your party, plus a little extra in case of emergency. Consider carrying a portable water filter, like the Katadyn Mini 0.2 Micron Water Filter, in your pack—but never drink unfiltered water directly from a stream or pond.
Most modern backpacks have, at minimum, a hole for the drinking hose of a hydration system—a rubber bladder that fits in the pack to store water. Some packs come equipped with the reservoir, like the Camelbak Rim Runner 22, which can carry three liters of water and has side pockets where more water can be carried in bottles. Drinking from a hydration system’s hose is easier than reaching back for a bottle every time you need a sip.
One of the great pleasures of a day hike is enjoying lunch in a beautiful place. As long as your food won’t spoil and you have room to carry it, you can bring anything you like, and everything tastes better outdoors. If you’re saving your appetite for a nice dinner after the hike, you can get the fuel you need on the trail from a wide variety of snacks—from homemade trail mix to the iconic Clif Bar. But whether you pack a picnic or get by on energy bars, make sure you have extra food in case you unexpectedly spend the night.
Even on cloudy days, your skin is vulnerable to damage by ultraviolet radiation, and on sunny days, the danger is obviously greater. You should wear sunscreen anytime you’re outside. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends applying sunscreen with an SPF rating of 15 or higher 20 minutes before exposure to the sun, so your skin has time to absorb it, and to reapply every two hours (more frequently if you swim or perspire.) The agency strongly recommends broad-spectrum sunscreen, which offers protection from both UVA and UVB rays. Remember, too, that your eyes need protection from the sun, even when it’s not sunny. Experts recommend using sunglasses anytime you’re outdoors, even on cloudy days. Look for lenses with complete UVA/UVB protection.
Few hikers would want to set out between spring and fall without some form of protection from bugs. Flying, stinging pests are always an annoyance, but in some areas, tick-borne illnesses like Lyme disease and mosquito-spread West Nile Virus are serious health problems. Plenty of insect repellents, both with and without DEET, are available and will make your hike safer and more pleasant. It’s nice to feel the breeze on your arms and legs, but long pants and shirt sleeves will keep the pests at bay. If you really get into an uncomfortable bug situation (ever encounter a swarm of Adirondack black flies?), you might want a head net, or even a bug jacket and bug pants. Tuck your trouser legs into your socks for even better protection, and check your skin for ticks when you get home. Mosquitoes are most active in the evening, so do your walking before dinnertime.
Beyond bugs, you’re very unlikely to have dangerous encounters with wildlife. Most wild animals prefer to avoid contact with people. Carrying and knowing how to use bear spray is a good idea, but chances are you won’t need it. Do try to avoid surprising bears; hike with other people and make your presence known, especially near dense brush. Read Joseph Albanese’s primer, Bear-Proofing Your Campsite, for more on how to minimize and manage interactions with animals.
Communication on the Trail
By all means, bring your mobile device, but be aware that service may be spotty. In New York, for example, you’ll probably have coverage (depending on your provider) in the lush forest preserves of the Hudson Valley, but in parts of the Adirondacks, you may well be off the grid. A cell phone is a great way to call for help in an emergency, but you should have an old-school backup that works everywhere: a whistle (see “The 10 Essentials,” below). Of course, even if your phone has no signal, you can still use it to grab great selfies.
If you’ll be in backcountry with no cell phone coverage, you can still send for help using emergency satellite communication technology. Devices like the Spot Gen3 Motion Activated GPS Tracker and the Delorme inReach SE Global Satellite Communicator with Navigation broadcast emergency beacons via satellite to the GEOS International Emergency Rescue Coordination Center from any location with a clear view of the sky. A subscription is required for use, and annual or month-to-month plans are available.
Handheld two-way radios can be a useful addition to your pack. They’re great for staying in touch with members of your party who arrive at the trailhead and set off before or after you do, or with members of a single party who move at different speeds. Most two-way radios offer NOAA weather alerts, which can be an important safety feature.
Two-way radios have two configurations: FRS (Family Radio Service) and GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service). GMRS radios require a license from the Federal Communications Commission; it costs $85, is good for five years, and allows any member of the license holder’s family to use GMRS radios. You can apply online or download forms from www.fcc.gov. FRS radios do not require a license, but they operate at lower power and therefore have a more limited range. In either case, remember that the maximum range listed by the manufacturer is achieved under ideal line-of-sight conditions. Mountainous and forested terrain will significantly reduce the maximum range. But you should still be able to communicate with someone up to a couple of miles away.
Whether deep in the backcountry or just off the beaten path, new hikers should never hike alone. And whether you’re out with a single companion or part of the group, always let someone back home know where you’re going, when you’re leaving and when you expect to be back.
The 10 Essentials
Hiking is hardly a daredevil, high-risk activity, but there are some things every hiker should have when out on the trail in case of emergency. Here’s the Appalachian Mountain Club’s list of 10 Essentials:
- Warm Clothing
- Extra Food and Water
- Flashlight or Headlamp
- First Aid Kit
- Rain Gear
- Pocket Knife