I am honored to be taking my brother and his friend out for their first hike in a few weeks. As we approach their inaugural trip, I am considering how they need to prepare for this new journey. What info do they need in advance? What will they have to wait and learn on the trail itself? If you’re preparing for your first hike, there are four general categories to keep in mind: food & water, gear, physical & mental preparedness and navigation.
In this post, I am passing along what I consider to be the need-to-know stuff for a newbie hiker without diving into information overload. However, it is a lot to cover. As you research and prepare, follow the links in the post; they lead to even more information. A great place to start is Philip Werner’s post, “What Should I Pack on a 3 Day Backpacking Trip” at SectionHiker.com.
WARNING! I am very analytical and detail-oriented. I enjoy planning and spend a lot of time reading and researching on the topic of hiking. There is ALWAYS more information to gather and more gear to buy. If you wait until you know everything and have all the “right” gear, you’ll never get on the trail! Don’t get caught in “paralysis by analysis.” At some point you have to simply take what you know and what you have and GO HIKING. You will never have every piece of equipment that you think you need. You will have to make substitutions and settle for less-than-ideal outfitting options. That’s totally OK. The bottom line is this: prepare the best you can, but simply get on the trail.
Here are a few thoughts to consider as you prepare for your first trip:
Food & Water
Food and water are major contributors to both the success of your trip and the weight of your pack. Researching and planning for your food can be time-consuming as well as entertaining.
Stoves & Cook Sets. One of the first things you should decide is how you plan to cook your food. What type of stove and cook set do you need, if any? Though your stove and cook set falls in the gear category, I’m including it here because your menu will determine what equipment you need. In warmer months, you can actually take no-cook foods and ditch the cook set altogether. I, however, refuse to hike without a hot cup of coffee in the morning, so my cook set is non-negotiable! Regarding stoves, an easy start for non-winter hiking is the $10 pocket-rocket style stove from Amazon that uses ISO butane/propane fuel mix. This fuel is fairly inexpensive and can be purchased at most big box stores that have a camping department. One can will be more than enough for a three-day, two-night hiking trip. Many ultralight backpackers use some variation of the alcohol stove (e.g. the Super Cat, Trangia, Vargo Triad, etc). This is a super inexpensive, super lightweight option, but it may be too frustrating for a new hiker. Personally, I have used both and have my own reasons for leaning toward the pocket rocket.
Food. When choosing your menu for the hike, keep in mind that “wet” foods (peanut butter, non-dehydrated fruit, etc) will add LOTS of unnecessary weight to your pack. Look for foods that are high in calorie content but light in weight. Backpacking favorites include almonds, nut & chocolate trail mix, beef jerky, oatmeal, grits (for fellow hikers from the south), dehydrated fruit (banana chips are my favorite… also love craisins), and the iconic package of ramen noodles. Many hikers carry olive oil to add to their noodles and other meals. Though it is a “wet” food, its high calorie count makes it worth the weight. It’s also a good idea to carry some sort of sweet treat to snack on while hiking between meals. Many hikers rely on gummy bears, Snickers bars, peanut butter cups or jelly beans to provide a hit of glucose and a mental boost during the hike. Build your menu and pack your meals in plastic bags by day and meal.
Water. Water is extremely important while hiking. Even in cold weather, you will sweat a lot during the hike and will need to constantly replenish your body to avoid dehydration. At the bare minimum, carry a couple of water bottles and stop regularly to drink. Hydration bladders that fit in your pack allow you to stay hydrated without stopping to access water bottles. You will also need to be able to filter water along the way. The Sawyer Mini is a small, lightweight and inexpensive water filter, making it a popular choice. It “removes 99.9999% of all bacteria, such as salmonella, cholera, and E.coli and 99.999% of all protozoa, such as giardia and cryptosporidium.” It does not, however, protect against viruses. The SteriPEN protects against viruses as well, and some hikers use it for an added level of protection. Many choose to only carry a filter with the belief that bacteria and protozoa are a more significant risk than viruses in water sources along North American trails.
Bottom line. Conservationist John Muir’s prescription for trip planning was simply, “Throw a loaf of bread and a pound of tea in an old sack and jump over the back fence.” Maybe I’m not the man that Muir was; I suggest a little more thoughtfulness in your planning. However, the spirit of his quote resonates. Do what you can, grab what you have, and get out there. If you don’t have a stove and full cook set, don’t worry. You can take a cup, a plastic fork, and bum off of your hiking buddy when he’s boiling water on his stove. Noodles, a couple of bottles of water and some candy bars can get you through a weekend hike if that’s all you can scrounge up.
Gear: Clothes, Boots, Pack, Trekking Poles & Shelter
On the trail, your gear is the only thing between you and the elements. Consider the terrain and weather conditions for your trip and prepare your gear accordingly.
Clothes. Think layers when considering clothes for hiking. You need three layers – base layer, mid layer, and outer shell. Your base layer should be moisture-wicking, your mid layer should insulate, and your outer shell should protect from the elements (primarily rain). Avoid cotton at all costs. Synthetic fabrics will be come your best friend. Buy synthetic socks and underwear (compression shorts are a must-have). Use an athletic, moisture-wicking t-shirt as part of your base layer. Many hikers use zip-off hiking pants. Definitely bring a hat of some sort to keep the sun and rain off of your face as you hike; head covering also helps keep ticks out of your hair.
Boots. Choose a good pair of hiking boots and break them in before your trip. There are several factors to consider when choosing boots. Would you rather have a light boot (like a hiking shoe) or one with good ankle support? Would you rather have a waterproof boot or one that breathes and keeps your feet cooler? This choice is really a matter of personal preference. Leading brands in hiking boots include Merrell, Keen and Hi-Tec.
Pack. When it comes to choosing a hiking pack, fit and functionality are most important. It’s a good idea to stop by a retailer for a fitting. I borrowed a pack from a friend for my first hike, felt really comfortable with it, and bought the same pack before my next trip. It’s not the lightest pack on the market, but I like its size, number and locations of pockets, and its fit. My pack is a 55 liter pack. There are a much bigger packs on the market, but I like having a smaller pack. The smaller size forces me to pare down my gear to the essentials. Plus, I primarily go on 3-day hikes.
Trekking poles. Some hikers forego trekking poles, but the majority find them very helpful. Trekking poles give added stability when ascending or descending on the trail. They also allow your arms to assist your legs in moving your body weight along the trail. Though the wooden hiking staff serves as the traditional trekking pole, most modern-day hikers have opted for trekking poles more akin to ski poles. When choosing trekking poles, look for light weight and flip-locks (the less expensive twist-lock versions are more apt to fail). Chinook Technical Outdoors sells a very affordable trekking pole with flip-locks. Determine if you want to hike with two trekking poles or one. Most hikers who use modern trekking poles hike with two (so both arms can be engaged), while those who opt for the traditional wooden staff usually hike with one. Some hikers, like my wife, don’t like to continually hold poles in both hands. Personally, I use a wooden hiking staff and alternate arms. (I’m a sucker for tradition… I burn the dates and locations of my hikes into my staff.)
Shelter. Most hikers use some sort of shelter at camp (a few “cowboy camp” and sleep under the stars). The most common type of shelter is a tent, while hammock camping has risen in popularity in recent years. When choosing a tent, consider the weight of the tent and how much space it provides. Bivy tents are very light but are also so small that some hikers can become claustrophobic in one. (My experience in a borrowed bivy tent on my first hike caused me to convert to hammock camping). Other options include smaller backpacking tents that may utilize your trekking pole as a structural pole in the tent. Some ultralight hikers have moved to tarp tents. Hammock camping gives the hiker a comfortable sleeping option that is easier on the body (than the forest floor) and more wide-open space to maneuver. Derek Hansen’s book “The Ultimate Hang” and website provide everything you need to know to get hangin’. I personally use products by Paul at Arrowhead-Equipment.com and the guys at Yukon-Outfitters.com. Both of these companies offer quality products at incredible prices. Paul at Arrowhead is another great resource for all things hammock camping.
Bottom line. If you’re somewhat active, you probably have enough non-cotton athletic clothes to make due for a weekend trip. On my first hike, I wore a pair of running shorts, a synthetic shirt I got from a 5K, a baseball cap and a well-worn pair of running shoes. I was actually quite comfortable, even with cotton socks (that one could have been disastrous). If you don’t have compression shorts, buy them. Chaffing will turn your hike into a nightmare. Borrow all the gear you can… pack, sleeping bag, tent, etc. It’s a great idea to borrow before you buy so you can test-run gear and figure out what works for you (in my case, the pack worked but the bivy tent did not). You probably have a friend who has been hiking longer than you have. Ask what extra gear he/she has that you can borrow. Hikers like to buy gear, so your hiking friend probably has duplicates of certain things. Don’t have trekking poles? You can literally grab a long fallen branch or small tree and make your own staff. You don’t have to spend a small fortune outfitting yourself at a three-letter big box store before your first trip. You may look more like Grandma Gatewood than a hipster hiker, but you can get on the trail without taking a second mortgage to buy new gear.
Physical & Mental Preparedness
Physical. Once you’ve settled your backcountry menu and gathered all of your gear, it’s time to prepare your most important hiking assets: your body and your mind. If you go from the couch to the trail, you will have a very eye-opening experience. The trail tells no lies; your physical condition will become apparent quickly. Prepare for your hike by working on your cardio and leg strength. If you attend a gym, work on weight-bearing squats, box jumps, etc. You don’t have to train inside in order to spend a weekend on the trail, though. Go for runs regularly. If available, utilize park benches to do box jumps at intervals along the run. Incorporate air squats, lunges, etc. One of the best ways to prepare for a hike is to… go for hikes. Strap on your pack (with weight!) and get to hiking. Become a regular at your local state park. Hike along the side of the road in your town. Find a place with lots of steps (like your high school’s football stadium) and run up and down the steps with your loaded pack. Push your legs and lungs as hard as you can before your hike so they will hold up when you really need them.
Mental. Preparing your mind for the hike is even more important than preparing your body. Pain pushes a person to his or her limits and amplifies every problem. A hiker is in constant pain and problems are around every corner on the trail. You will have to wrestle with your attitude and self-talk once you get on the trail. Resign yourself to the fact that you will be physically miserable for most of the hike. You will ask yourself questions like, “Why did I think this would be fun?!?!” and “Since when is pain a good idea for recreation?” Make peace with the idea of hiking in adverse weather (be ready for rain). Be prepared to overcome challenges… lots of them. Understand the fact that your hike will not turn out the way you imagined it. However, it’s your hike and it’s your job to complete it. Embrace it for what it is and enjoy it. Every hike will be different and, hopefully, you’ll be on many more. If this one is horrible, the next one will likely be better and you’ll get to laugh and tell the tragic stories of this misadventure around the campfire.
Bottom line. Let’s be honest… it’s much easier to buy gear than go to the gym. If you can discipline yourself to get conditioned for your hike, do it. You don’t have to CrossFit to go on a hike (though it helps a lot). Go for a run in your neighborhood, or at least a very brisk walk, several times a week between now and the hike. Go for bike rides. Do 20 air squats every time you go to the bathroom throughout the day. If you decide to do no physical training and just go on your hike, you’ll survive… but the hike will likely hurt worse than it has to. You may be on the opposite spectrum and have trained and bought gear and studied maps and tried to plan for every possible circumstance. Don’t let your planning steal your motivation to hike. Considering worst-case scenarios can zap your hiking zeal. At some point you have to tell yourself, “On such-and-such date I’m going on a hike, regardless of weather or other circumstances, and it’s going to be AWESOME!” Then, go for a hike. (If the weather is legitimately dangerous, especially if temperatures are low, do not hesitate to reschedule. The weather does kill hikers from time to time.)
In order to have a successful hike, you need to have a good map or a good guide… or both.
Your map. Please take the time to find a good map for your trail. If it looks like it should come with crayons and a kids menu, keep looking until you find a real one. Topographic (or topo) maps are great for hiking… they help gauge both distance and elevation change. There are lots of great apps for navigating trails. Personally, I don’t rely on a digital map. When I’m on the trail, I want my phone to stay charged in case I need to make an emergency call. I do not want to drain my battery by running GPS or constantly looking at an app. I like to get a paper map, make a scaled-down copy (that’s still readable), cut out just the section I need, and laminate it. Some hikers keep their maps in plastic sandwich bags if they don’t go to the trouble to laminate. It is important that every member of a hiking party has a paper copy of the map in case you get separated. (I once hiked a section of the Appalachian Train in Georgia without a map… we didn’t know we were even on Blood Mountain until we ran into other hikers at the top of it!) If you can find a good hiking guidebook for your trail, it will be an incredible resource. It will provide maps as well as mileage between shelters and road crossings, information about points of interest (like waterfalls), location of water sources, emergency numbers for the area, etc.
Your guide. If you are going on a hiking trip with someone else, determine if your guide is doing his/her homework. Does he have the experience necessary to take you on this journey? Can you trust her with your safety? A good guide will make the trip much less stressful for you. You can do what I did on my first hiking trip… jump out of the vehicle and simply walk behind your guide. If you are concerned that the leader of your trip may not be a qualified guide, take the initiative to become one yourself. It’s nice to be able to entrust the hard work of preparation to a reliable guide, but in the end every hiker should take responsibility for him/herself.
Bottom line. Most major trails are well marked and easy to follow. Some hikers argue that you can hike the entire Appalachian Trail without a map because the blazes are so easy to follow. If you are hiking a well established, well maintained trail, you should feel comfortable navigating from one end to the other. However, prepare for the hike and take a good map (if not a guidebook).
Put down your computer and go hiking already!
Who knew so much thought went into taking a walk in the woods?! Find your balance between preparation and “going with the flow.” How much do you need to do in advance to feel safe and secure for your hike? That will depend on you as an individual. Prepare as you see fit and… hit the trail! Have fun on your first hiking trip!
I would love to hear about your first trip. When you get back, take a moment to share your experience in the comments below.