Hiking for Beginners
New to hiking? Playing outside is always healthy and fun, and hiking is a great workout when done regularly. In fact, after 6-8 weeks of conditioning out in the wild, along with sensible food intake, the pounds seem to melt off with every hike. Plus, mountain hiking especially has a positive impact on your blood pressure, and is a great mood leveler.
What they say online ... a lot: Find a Hiking Partner.
You know, somebody to keep you company and be there if you get hurt. Good idea in theory. Realistically, I tried that and here's what I discovered:
Ready for action, I bought some cool hiking boots, a cute hiking outfit, and a little backpack (that essential hiker style statement) for water, cell phone, and stuff. After two or three months of canvassing everybody I knew who matched my poor fitness level at the time, I discovered that waiting for somebody else to go hiking with you means ... you'll never hike.
On the other hand, if you know a frequent hiker willing to let you tag along, great. But be aware they're likely in much better shape and may get annoyed when you can't keep up the pace or worse, need to turn back before you collapse. At best it's awkward. Sure, you can join hiking groups, but those people have been doing it for years, and a few organizers out there are hiking nuts. Those are easy to spot by the lack of participants for that 6-hour hike up a hot mountain, 50 miles away in near wilderness, in 105-degree heat, starting at 5:00 a.m. You'll need to cram in a lot of graduated fitness hikes, and give up family and the day job, to keep up with that.
So, this intrepid beginner hit the trail alone and loved it. Assuming you live or are vacationing in hiking country, it's easy to just gear up and go for an hour (more or less). My first hikes were short but invigorating.
Select Your First Solo Hiking Trail
- Select a managed trail close to home or vacation spot that's well traveled. Other hikers tend to be surprisingly friendly, and willing to assist if anything goes wrong.
- Double check trail information online. Elevation gain will indicate difficulty level, so try a more lateral trail at first. Generally, it takes a good hour for a heart pumping 1,000 feet of elevation gain. That may be a bit much until later.
- Choose a modest trail plan you can complete in a round trip, back to your car. Logistics can be tricky when a trail plan spans 3-5 miles away from the parking lot. Initially you'll likely need to simply turn around and go back on a short stint before attempting more lengthy trail plans.
- Plan for weather, time of day, and time of year. Time your hike so you're not caught in the middle of nowhere alone after sunset. Avoid hiking in extreme heat or cold.
- Once you're off and walking, don't be too ambitious. Unless you're a trained marathoner or gym lunk already in fabulous physical condition, pace yourself. Stop when you need to ... and in the beginning that may be a lot, depending on the incline. Turn around when you've had enough, then go a little further next time. That summit will wait to be conquered.
Gear You Will Need
Happily, short day hiking is pretty low maintenance, so you won’t need a lot of high tech, engineered gear, especially when getting started.
Hiking Footwear: While this is a great style opportunity, first and foremost you need support, traction and comfort. Select boots or shoes designed for the terrain. For example, over the ankle hiking boots are recommended for rougher, rocky trails with boulders, tree roots and debris, creeks, or more vertical inclines. Those ankle boots are also a big deal in rattlesnake country. Most bites occur on ankles and feet.
Lightweight hiking or running shoes may be fine for lateral, well maintained trails with fewer obstacles.
What they say online about socks: Wear synthetics.
Maybe, and there are performance socks in synthetics that are awesome. However, I’ve done some serious hikes in my organic cotton socks and I love them. Experiment to see what works for you. A change of socks is easy to pack just in case.
- What to wear: That depends on the climate and/or season.
On desert trails in our gorgeous winters, sexy spandex leggings, activewear, or gym clothes, are worn by hikers a lot, but in summer heat anywhere, your skin needs to breathe. Consider lightweight cotton fabrics, such as canvas or cotton shorts, or long sleeved cotton tees or tanks (don't forget the sunscreen!).
Wear a hat!
Where summers are cooler, or for base layers when hiking in the cold, performance synthetics, or eco-friendly moisture wicking activewear and thermals work very well.
Outerwear: In the cold, of course go for puffy or insulating jackets, vests, warm hats under hoods, and gloves. Hooded jackets do provide that extra windbreak protection from cold winds. Remember the winter bundling trifecta: head, hands, feet. Layering in the freezing cold is very important as well ... long underwear or leggings, and thermals are a must.
- Rainwear: Something packable like a rain poncho and water repellent hat. If rain is expected, you might want to pack rain pants too. Personally, I stay home and wait for a sunny day.
Hiking Backpacks: If you’re only starting out at 30 minutes to under an hour, a small pack for water, car keys, cellphone, wallet, and maybe an energy bar or two, will be fine. For longer hikes, select a daypack that will hold a couple of litres of water (think about 1/2 litre of water per hour), some food, a cellphone pocket, and an extra layer of clothes depending on weather expectations.
Serious long range hikes in wilderness areas will require food, extra clothing and rainwear, plenty of water (again, plan about 1/2 litre per hour, unless you are at that rare site with a water source for refills), cell phone with reliable and fully charged battery, first aid kit, and survival blanket. A large, 30-litre capacity backpack or larger, is needed.
- Courtesy check: Please don't apply fragrance or hair oils before your hike; it may make the other hikers gag. Lovely fragrances do not blend well with sweat. If you must smell like Bath & Body Works, some Trendy Aftershave, or worse .... aromatic hair oil, you may pay the price with new little flying insect friends, or a reputation as THAT hiker to avoid.
General Hiking Tips
Unfortunately, every year people succumb and need rescue, or die due to heat stroke, dehydration, or accidents. Here is my list of do’s and don’ts based on experience, and a few mistakes.
Water! Carry 1-3 Litres, depending on the length of your hike. Generally, 1/2 litre per hour is recommended. When your water is half gone, turn around and go back.
- Cell Phone - fully charged, in case of emergency.
- Drink lots of water over a few hours ahead of your planned hike, but don't gulp down the last hour or two before you take off.
- Slather yourself liberally with sunscreen.
- If you're planning a hike longer than 30 minutes, wear a hat!
- In the extreme desert heat of summer, avoid that blazing sun and plan to hike early morning or evening. Duh. You don't want to get a bill for Medevac though sadly the consequences are sometimes much worse.
- Stay on the trail. Many areas off trail may be unstable and unsafe (think imminent rock slides and sneaky, nasty cholla cacti). Desert (rattle!) snakes and other charming wildlife tend to avoid the well-traveled trail. Slightly off trail, I recently found myself with two new hiking buddies: a coyote and a huge buzzard. Not good.
- Desert Hikers: If you encounter a rattlesnake, keep stay calm and … keep walking. Don’t make any sudden moves. Good news: most snakes don't lounge about in the open during the day, so don't stick your hands where they don't belong. Rattlers won’t bite unless they feel threatened.
- Please consider your pets. It's hot and dry out there on tender paws, and they need water too. Especially in the scorching desert heat of summer, there's good reason animals (and humans) are largely out of sight during the day ...they can get seriously overheated. Take your pet buddy to a grassy park for a morning or evening romp instead.
- While we're on the subject, be nice and pick up your pet droppings, especially on a well traversed trail.
I am in love with desert mountain hiking (over winter) ... the workout and well-being values are amazing. But, happy hiking equates to preparation and forethought.