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Your first hike: what every newbie needs to know

The snake was THAT longHiking is just walking farther from the neighborhood, right? So why bother?

  • No car exhaust: The air’s cleaner the farther you get from the main road.
  • Much better exercise: Hills offer better resistance, and uneven terrain works far more muscle fibers than flat surfaces like asphalt and concrete.
  • Nature is more interesting: You learn how the world really works by watching seasons change, experiencing the pull of gravity, seeing wild animals.

Before you leave the house you have to answer three questions:

  1. Where are you gonna go?
  2. Who are you gonna go with?
  3. What will you take along?

Each one, in order:

Where? Start by googling “hiking trails” for your geographic area. The hits will most likely be parks and nature preserves. Your prime concerns are distance and elevation gain. For experienced hikers, 1,000 feet of elevation gain over five miles is just an average outing, but keep in mind: 1,000 feet is as high as a 100-story building. Imagine climbing all those stairs. Unless you’re already in really good physical shape, start with a couple miles and a few hundred feet of gain.

Who? You’re best off with an experienced companion or local hiking club — keeping in mind that having somebody else doing all the navigation puts you in serious jeopardy if you get separated from the group. I’ve hiked solo without incident for years, but I’m extremely cautious by nature: I stay on main trails, I formulate plans for turning back when I start to think I’m lost, I tell people where I’m going. If you google “hiking” groups for your area, make sure you find out how they treat beginners. Some will leave you behind, others will wait patiently.

What to take? I never hike without:

  1. A map. You’ve gotten lost in the mall; try getting out of a forest without something telling you were to turn. Over time you’ll be savvy enough to hike without one, but till then, never set foot on trail without one (even with one you’ll get lost a few times).
  2. Sturdy, comfortable shoes (and high-quality hiking socks). Running or cross-training shoes are usually fine for most day hikes. More expensive footwear designed specifically for hiking is for long walks of over five miles on tricky terrain. You’re a rookie, you’re not going there anyway.
  3. Clothing that matches the climate and seasons. Cotton is great in the summer when you want to stay moist and cool; it’s killer the rest of the year if you’re trying to preserve body heat.
  4. A water supply. Don’t leave the house with less than at a pair of half-liter bottles.

Your brain is far more important than anything you can buy at REI: make wise choices in advance (like checking the weather forecast) and you’ll almost never have to worry if you’ve got enough of the right stuff.

My post “10 Essentials for Happy Hiking” at Two-Heel Drive offers more details on my take-along philosophy.

5 comments | Permalink | Tags: , , , |
Tom posted at 10:37 am August 15th, 2008

5 Responses to 'Your first hike: what every newbie needs to know'

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  1. Ratty says:

    Wow, thanks for the excellent advice. I’m probably considered a beginner on bigger trails, but I go on 1 to 2 mile trails at least once a week. This post is the kind of thing I’m trying to get good enough to do on my blog.

    Permalink | Posted August 15th, 2008, at 1:15 pm
  2. grey3k says:

    Some odds and ends to add to this list of what to take on your first hike:

    small first aid kit ( make sure it has mole skin, expessially if its your first hike ( blisters )
    Sun/Bug Lotion
    disposable camera ( or better )
    if there is a chance you might get wet, bring a extra pair of socks.

    Permalink | Posted August 15th, 2008, at 10:22 pm
  3. Shari says:

    It’s great to see you remembering the beginners out there. Great advice which will hopefully lead to a lifetime of hiking.

    Permalink | Posted March 18th, 2013, at 3:14 pm
  4. George Rabks says:

    I think the most important part of hiking that most beginners neglect is letting someone know your itinerary. You have to let a friend or family member know where you’re going and when you expect to be back. How can anyone be expected to find you if you run into trouble and no one knows where you are?

    Permalink | Posted August 18th, 2013, at 3:12 am
  5. Jon Smallwood says:

    Good advice. Stay on the main trail and don’t take no switch backs you usually will find your way back.

    Permalink | Posted February 4th, 2014, at 12:42 pm

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