Hiking Essentials – Guide to staying safe and having fun!

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It’s a glorious day!

You decide to take a jaunt at a nearby park and find yourself refreshed and feeling positive. That wonderful sensation is one of the many reasons that hiking’s popularity has grown, along with the positive health benefits.

In this article I’m sharing with you a wealth of information that helps both beginner and experienced hikers alike. My goal is making your trek enjoyable while also keeping yourself protected.

Get your hiking essentials together

What constitutes hiking?

Nailing down a definition of what constitutes hiking often depends on who you ask.

In the United States and Canada, a hike is a long, brisk walk along rough trails or even old cow paths. Meanwhile, in the UK, if you say “walking” you can be talking about backpacking too. The English call hill hikes “fellwalking” and in Australia it’s called “tramping”!

If the linguistics weren’t confusing enough, then there’s other factors.

When making your way through dense forest with undergrowth over more than one day, you’re bush-walking (or bushwhacking if the area is really close-knit). Africans call long-distance trail efforts trekking, and returning back to the US hikes with camping bear the designation of backpacking.

As a flash from the past:

During the 18th century, taking a promenade to a natural location was charming and romantic, and might include a picnic. Part of this allure came from newly appearing travel guides extolling the pleasures of walking.

Some of the famous authors in the Romantic period and Transcendentalist movement were known for traipsing regularly include Wordsworth, Thoreau and Coleridge followed later by Keats.

By the 20th Century, books included descriptions of extended walking tours.

In turn, so-called “Rambling clubs” popped up. Then came marked hiking areas, particularly in National Parks and other protected areas.

The rest, as they say, is history.

How can you hike safely?

How to get into Hiking

You’ve done a little research and know that hiking makes a great low-impact workout. It’s known to reduce stress too.

But unlike your treadmill or the sidewalk, there’s more to hiking that meets the eye.

When you first consider getting into hiking know it’s unpredictable. That means the motto “know before you go” is the first step.

If you have a local hiking club or organization like the American Hiking Society nearby, turn to them for regional information that helps with networking and staying safe.

Now, I’m sure you are excited but keep what you envision reasonable.

The one mistake nearly all beginner hikers make is overdoing it. They find the path is too long for the time allowed, the climb too rough on the knees etc.

Start with baby steps, hiking no more than 5 miles initially based on your fitness. Take the terrain into consideration.

If you’re going uphill or dealing with a lot of rocky areas, cut that distance down accordingly. Know your body and your limitations.

Additionally, get familiar with any hiking trail before you leave by reading available guides or talking to other hikers. The guidebooks tell you how long the hike normally takes and any potential hazards.

They also tell you the cool stuff to stop and photograph or observe. #doitforthegram

Speaking of books, get to know your map. You cannot always rely on a cellphone app for accuracy. Have a hand-held copy and learn how to read it. Yes, actual paper. Keep it in a food storage bag in case of rain.

A GPS is nice too, but try using your map first. Mark personal observations on it. Effectively, you are making a personal manual to which you can refer when you return to that trail.

A few more tips on getting started in hiking:

  • Consider the buddy system. Going at first with a companion provides greater safety for both of you. And sharing the adventure with someone else can be really fun.
  • If going alone always tell someone your plans. Providing them with a copy of your map is a good idea too.
  • Do your homework. Do you need a permit? Get it before you arrive on site.
  • Check the weather report, particularly for dramatic temperature changes. Dress accordingly.
  • Pack essentials (we’ll get into that more later in the post)
  • Don’t rush. You want to get away from the chaos of daily life and enjoy nature’s wonders.
  • Learn hiking etiquette (Do you want another short piece on this and maybe map reading?)
  • Leave no trace. Be nice to the Earth

While all this sounds like common sense, it’s easy to overlook little things.

How many Calories does Hiking Burn?

It’s not all fun and game – hiking can have serious health and weight loss benefits!

Your body weight plays a role in how many calories you’ll burn while hiking. A person weighing 160 pounds burns about 435 calories an hour on the move.

The more you weigh, the more you burn.

Now, that doesn’t mean binging on pizza, gaining weight and then walking. To help your body burn up a few more calories, add some weight to your pack. A gallon of water is one excellent idea that also keeps you hydrated (and makes the load lighter as you drink!).

Tip: Make sure your backpack can hold heavier goods without tearing, and that you can carry your pack without hurting yourself.

The way you tackle the Hike changes calorie consumption, too. A few short sprints or a jog on a flat trail increases the results. There are online calculators, like this one from Map My Hike, that you can try for more specific estimates.

What to wear when you're hiking

What to wear Hiking

Deciding what to wear hiking is an essential part of your preparations. Certainly, the ensemble depends heavily on the anticipated weather and the trail itself.

I’ll get into some specific situations, in a bit. But there are some basics that remain the same.

  • Shoes or boots: The importance of comfortable, supportive footwear cannot be over stressed. You should wear new shoes or boots several times before your hike to break them in.
  • Socks: Cotton is a good choice. Think about biting bugs and other potential critters near your feet. Go with knee-high as a layer of protection.
  • Pants: You want something that doesn’t restrict your waist and stretches as you bend your knees. Now is not the time to “fit into” those skinny jeans.
  • Hat: One that covers the tips of your ears and keeps sunlight away from your face.
  • Sunscreen: OK, not clothing but sunburn is a common hikers’ problem without it.
  • Waterproof Pack: One that holds all your necessities like your cellphone, camera, sunglasses, tissues, food, water and a lightweight jacket just in case.

But what about seasonal changes? Well, let’s take a look.

What to wear Hiking in Winter

Brrrr. I can feel the cold just writing this.

Layer your clothing so you can take off a piece of clothing if you’re too hot or it gets wet, and then put it back on later.

Basic clothing includes:

  • Gloves: Waterproof and ones that fit your hands without encumbering them. Bring two pairs in case your hands sweat.
  • Hat: Fleece or wool make good choices. Pack an extra one (you can wear both at a time)
  • Long sleeve shirt
  • Pullover vest
  • Thermal under garments
  • High Gaiters: These keep snow out of your boots and offer extra insulation
  • Boots: Insulated and waterproofed single layer for below the treeline)
  • Socks: Warm ones. Pack an extra pair.
  • Hardshell jacket (waterproof, windproof, often hooded) and pants. These are lightweight and durable
  • Backpack with essentials including illumination, first aid, fire starter, pocket shovel, compass, map and energy snacks (for starters).

If you are going above the treeline (~4300 feet), then you will also need a face mask and goggles.

What to wear Hiking in Summer

As the sun starts beating down hotter, our attention shifts to keeping cool.

One easy trick is wearing light-colored clothing. This reflects the sun’s rays instead of absorbing them and making you hotter.

My other top tips include:

  • Choosing clothing that breathes, like nylon. Cotton is OK for dry, hot days.
  • UPF-clothing (possible spin off topic?). Some manufacturers now make sportswear that provides extra protection against UV rays.
  • Wear a hat. The top of your head can get sunburn too (and it’s not enjoyable).
  • Don a bandanna. Dip this in cool water and put it back on, keeping you refreshed.
  • Wear well-fitted socks so they don’t wrinkle and chafe.
  • Carry ample hydration. Sip on it regularly

Finally, realize that the heat during lunch hour and at dusk can be very different things. Some hikers have been caught with temperatures dipping, humidity changing, misting etc.

Plan for the unexpected.

Where to Buy Hiking Gear

Numerous retails have hiking gear, some of which is glamorous and other more affordable and practical. Compare prices and reviews for the store you’re considering as well as the brands they represent.

Or, check out a site like GearTrade that offers fantastic deals on both new and used items.

You can sometimes find great deals on Craigslist.org. Just remember to use all the normal precautions. It’s best to buy local so you can see what you’re getting first.

Other bargain options include Freecycle sites, Garage/Attic sales, Outlet stores and swap meets.

How to choose Hiking Boots

It’s true:

At first shopping for hiking boots can overwhelm you. There are a lot of brands and types from which to choose.

So let’s look at what’s what:

Backpacking Boots: As the name implies these are meant for when you are carrying a heavier backpack over several days. They’re supportive and work effectively for on or off the trail.

Day Boots: Mid and high-cut day boots exist. They’re flexible but don’t provide a lot of support. These are not as durable as Backpacking Boots.

Hiking Shoes: Comfortable for day hiking in low-level terrain. Really think a good sneaker, taken up a notch. You cannot use these for long walks or rocky regions.

Once you know which boot you need, you can look at the material. You can get leather, which is durable, breathable, and good for rugged terrain.

You can also get synthetics, which are lighter and a little more cost effective. Note that there are TONS of minutia about boot construction that could be another article entirely, so for now, it may be best to hit up an REI or other outdoors store and speak to a representative in person about your specific hiking boot needs!

At the end of the day what’s most important is how your boots fit.

Wait till the end of your day for trying on boots as your feet will have natural swelling. Wear the type of socks you plan on using on your hikes when you try them boots on.

Walk around the store in them. You know the fit is right when:

  • Your toes do not hit the end of the boot
  • You have a space at the top of your foot with the boots firmly laced
  • There is no sense of pinching or bumps.
  • They fit with your orthotics (if applicable)

As you make hiking part of your lifestyle you will find brands that you hate, and others you love. In the boot market, sometimes price really does indicate the level of quality.

Again, shop around.

What to pack for Hiking

Your packing list for a hike depends heavily on how long you plan on being gone, the terrain and the weather conditions.

What I’m presenting here is a simple list of highly-recommended essentials, with a few possible add-ons if you wish.

  • Map: Review it before you go.
  • Sunglasses: Hiking requires being able to see what’s ahead clearly. If you’re hiking in the snow, the Albedo Effect can be a killer (snow glare can be a dangerous thing!)
  • Sun screen
  • First aid kit: For inevitable cuts and scrapes.
  • Fire starter: Even on a day trip you may want a small fire for treats
  • Knife (I like the Benchmade Tactical Triage)
  • Compass
  • Flashlight: If you end up lost or the hike takes longer than you thought, have a light source.
  • Bug Repellent
  • Water & Food
  • Rain poncho (seasonal)
  • Whistle: for emergency signaling when you cannot use a cellphone.
  • Medical necessities (personal): Allergic to bees? Carry an Epi-pen.

Optional:

  • Walking Stick for stability
  • Emergency blanket
  • GPS device
  • Extra socks

What to wear hiking

How to pack a Hiking Backpack

With your list of essentials gathered, it’s time to assemble your backpack.

There’s a way to do this that keeps your pack from swaying as you walk.

Think of your backpack as having three parts, beginning with the bottom. Put bulky things here that you probably won’t need early in your hike like clothing layers and camp equipment.

In the middle of your backpack put food and your water canister. Finally at the top put your first aid kit and toilet supplies. You don’t want to be fishing around for these.

Side pockets are great for your map, sunglasses, bug spray and smaller water bottle. Use lash-on points for walking poles, a camp stool and long items like tent poles if camping.

However, because this gear can snag on branches or scrape against rocks, you should minimize how many items you carry on the outside of your pack.

Tip: Keep exterior add-ons to your pack at a minimum. Bushes often tangle such items up.

Staying safe while Hiking

This is Defensive Planet, after all. I’m all about staying safe here.

Your may want to have a piece in the future about on-trail vs. off trail hiking, and mountainous terrains

So what could go wrong while hiking?

Really, any number of things.

You meet with unexpected terrain difficulties, the weather changes, a personal medical issue acts up or you start feeling lost-any of these can impact your safety.

If you read the news, you know that people have hiking accidents or issues that leave them stranded and in need of help. So, you want to do everything you can to avoid such problems.

Preparation is really the key here. Know potential hazards including animals (like snakes or bears) or plants (like poison ivy and stinging nettle). Find out how to recognize these, then make a wide path around them staying as close to the trail as possible.

You might incur an injury, like twisting your ankle, experience sunstroke or frost bite in summer and winter, waterways can run faster than expected and sweep you upstream… well, the list goes on. So, we return you to our opening motto.

Make it your mantra: Know before you go!

With that out of the way, another great safety measure is choosing the best hiking route. For a perfect, worry-free hike consider:

  • Distance: The farther you go the longer it takes, and sometimes estimates aren’t perfect. Your pace changes with the weight of your pack.
  • Time: This ties into distance. Do you want a short hike over a few hours or a whole day? Remember for popular trails it takes time to park and reach the trail head. Add that in to your thought process.
  • Fitness: Not all hikers are made alike. Find a trail that offers you a safe pathway considering the shape you’re in and any medical conditions. If traveling with others, consider everyone’s ability level.
  • Weather: Hot or cold, windy or still, weather impacts your hike greatly. If it looks nasty, consider going another day.

Other safety tips include:

  • Packing as light as possible without overlooking essentials
  • Staying hydrated
  • Adjusting your clothing for potential temperature changes
  • Having high-energy snacks with you
  • Starting early so you finish before dark
  • Telling one (or more) people where you will be and when you should return
  • Carrying a GPS and a map
  • Pacing yourself
  • Staying on the trail
  • Avoiding wild animals (they’re called “wild” for a reason)
  • Staying alert. Pay attention to what’s under your feet an on the path ahead.
  • Poking around rocks before sitting on them in case of spiders, snakes, fire ants etc.
  • Moving carefully through mud or wet leaves
  • Following the trail markers religiously

Finally, mark your progress on your map regularly so you always know where you are in relationship to both the beginning and the end of the trail.

Time to start hiking!

Hiking safety gear

Once you know the basic hazards of hiking you can safeguard yourself by getting hiking safety gear. Every hiker has different preferences.

We think the following items make good, inexpensive accessories for personal protection:

Navigation: Maps, GPS, cell phone and/or compass. Anything that helps you keep from getting lost. Worried about powering a device? Some hiking backpacks now have a battery built in that attaches with a charging cable.

Food and Water. Enough for each day plus some. Hiking makes you hungry! Dry food (fruits, jerky, nuts) is light and provide solid calories. Pack one gallon of water a day for each person.

Sun and insect protection. Don’t skimp on either.

Extra layers and weather protection. If it looks like the weather is going to change quickly during the day, pack accordingly to stay cool, warm and/or dry.

Light source. Consider this peace of mind just in case you get caught at dusk or beyond. Extend this idea to a fire starter as well.

First aid kit. This speaks for itself. I’ve picked some of my favorites here.

Multi-tool. Great for minor repairs, particularly in combination with duct tape. Check out my recommendations here.

Tarp. This can become a rain jacket, a ground cover or even an emergency shelter.

And last, a handy dandy whistle. Hang it around your neck so it is always with you should you need help and cannot access other ways of calling for aid.

Conclusion

Whew. That was a big one.

I hope you’ve found some interesting and potentially life-saving information in this post! If you’ve got any other tips, tricks, and hiking essentials, leave them down in the comments!

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