Things to do before going on a hike
“When we experience beauty and awe, science suggests it helps us feel more connected to the world around us and to each other,” Williams said. “And really, we evolved to run. Our body and brain feel very comfortable with it.”
You will not be alone; Since the pandemic began, people have been flocking outdoors where there is plenty of air and they can practice social distancing and exercise. As a result, many state and national parks and local hiking trails have implemented reservation systems or provided shuttles to minimize parking problems.
With so many people in nature, a summer hike might seem daunting for a beginner. But getting started with hiking is relatively easy, said Amy David, a hiking and backpacking guide for Sawtooth Mountain Guides in Stanley, Idaho. Beginning hikers may think they need expensive gear or ambitious goals, when the only requirement is a desire to get outside. This can be easier in the American West, where state and federal public lands abound, but it’s also possible in most parts of the country, she said.
National parks and forests are bringing back reservation systems to control crowds
“In its simplest form, hiking is a way to enjoy nature, fresh air and nature,” said David. “You can go to a city park, but I’m leaning towards the upstate.”
Non-hikers might be wary of pervasive myths that can serve as barriers to getting people onto hiking trails. For one thing, many people assume that to go on a hike, they need expensive, fancy gear.
“There are certain types of gear you should have to make your experience safe and enjoyable,” David said, “but it doesn’t have to cost a fortune.”
Hikers should have shoes or boots that fit well to avoid blisters; thin wool socks; a water bottle; Wool or synthetic clothing that wicks sweat and dries quickly; and, when the weather forecast looks fickle, the right layers to keep you warm and dry. Trekking poles help distribute your weight and make the descent easier by relieving stress on your leg muscles and joints. Many trekking poles are collapsible like tent poles, making them easier to travel with. For longer day hikes and overnight trips that involve sleeping in a tent, the gear list grows. But for a newcomer to the trails setting out on a short or half-day hike, there’s no need to buy lots of fancy new supplies.
David said some people are also intimidated because they feel they have to be in peak physical condition and climb a mountain for their hike to “count”. Not correct. “A leisurely stroll can be a hike,” said David. “Hiking is open to almost everyone, regardless of experience or fitness level. As long as you enjoy moving your body at a pace that works for you, you are a walker. And you will continue to make progress as you gain more experience and fitness.”
Rather than looking for the prettiest or most challenging trail, David suggested just finding an enjoyable trail and exploring it. With the proliferation of trail finder apps, this is relatively easy. David recommended Avenza cards, onX and Gaia GPS, adding that the best app is the one you’re comfortable with. Most apps rank hikes by difficulty and provide essential information such as mileage there and back, elevation gain and loss, and more. Printed maps and guidebooks work, too, and most outdoor sport shops have local trail maps. Stop by one while on vacation and you’re almost guaranteed to get friendly, local insight to help you choose the best trail for your destination.
There are few things that can completely ruin a hike like ill-fitting shoes or boots. Blisters can take weeks and sometimes months to heal, and sensitive feet will limit movement or even keep you from hiking for the rest of the season, said Eric Henderson, a longtime Denver-based outdoor educator and guide.
“I would never advise buying boots online without trying them on first,” he said. “The right footwear is essential for a pleasant hike, and it pays to go to a specialty store for expert advice.”
Meet the people who design and build trails
Human feet are not uniform. Even if you know your height, you can have bunions, arch problems, or other complications, Henderson said. This means that fit is paramount, and you won’t know if a shoe or boot fits you well without trying them on first.
When shopping, don’t just lace up and shuffle through the store. Get on benches, hop around, and go up and down stairs if you can. Henderson said he prefers mid-cut boots, which offer more ankle support than a hiking boot but are less bulky than a heavy hiking boot.
If that all sounds intimidating to a beginner, go ahead and hit the trail in your running shoes, provided they fit well and are broken in so you don’t get a blister, David said. However, if you are interested in hiking shoes, invest in durable, well-made hiking shoes or boots.
There’s a favorite refrain among hikers: leave no trace. This is an ethos that boils down to respect, David said. Literally, it means unpack what you pack, including trash, extra groceries, orange peel or apple seeds (or other biodegradable waste that shouldn’t be thrown in the bushes). If you are hiking with a dog, pack up its poop and take it outside. And if you do need to poop, David gave these instructions: “Dig a hole so bring a small trowel you can get at an outdoor store and carry out used toilet paper so bring a ziplock bag for that .”
Leaving no trace also means respecting others along the way. Give people space as they pass by and don’t blast music through portable speakers or your phone. “Go out and listen with headphones, but it’s rude to expose others to your music or podcasts,” she said.
Equally important is making sure you bring enough food to stay fueled and water to stay hydrated. David suggested bringing more groceries than you think you’ll need (and a comfortable backpack to carry) and a water filtration system if you plan on topping up your water from a river or stream. “Fresh water doesn’t mean clean water,” she said. “Even if it’s clear, it can have Giardia.”
Hiking does not have to be relegated to the able-bodied. Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s TrailLink is an online resource (traillink.com) for finding wheelchair-accessible hiking trails across the country. The descriptive trail guides have photos and reviews. Some public land agencies also add Braille to signposts.
Accessibility also extends to groups that have not traditionally had an outdoor presence or activity. In recent years, itinerant groups for LGBTQ people, self-identified fat people, minorities and women have proliferated. The group Diversify Outdoors (diversifyoutdoors.com) has a side dedicated to connecting people across the country.
All of this means that nature is for everyone and exploring nature on foot can be a wonderful way to spend part of your vacation. Not only can hiking allow you to slow down and stimulate your senses, but it can also help you adjust to a new place, Williams said.
“Being outside in daylight is good for resetting the circadian rhythm when traveling across time zones,” she said. “It’s also great for relieving the sluggishness of sitting in a car or plane for a long time.”
Walker is a writer based in Boulder, Colorado. Find her on Twitter: @racheljowalker.