The outdoors is for everyone. If you were waiting for an invitation, consider this it! When I started hiking, I was so intimidated by the “how-tos” on most websites that made it sound like you need to be prepared for the possibility of being lost in the wilderness for up to a week even for a five-mile hike within an hour of home. Not that this is bad information to have, but there are a lot of different ways to hike and while it’s good to have survival skills & supplies, they aren’t always necessary. That already sounds like bad advice, but it’s true.
I’ve broken this up into three sections:
- Tips For the Beginner
- Day-Hiking Tips & My Gear List
- Extra Credit, Too Much Information & Hiking Etiquette. The first section is all you need to get started, so don’t let the continuing onslaught of information sway you from just getting out and giving hiking a shot.
1. Tips For the Beginner
- Picking a trail – Trails closer to home are ideal because they’re better maintained, less remote and you’ll likely have cell reception. You’ll find out quickly it’s elevation, not distance, you want to be most aware of. Start with a low elevation gain, something under 500 feet. Shorter distances, less than five miles, are good while getting a feel for what your body likes. Looking into a beginner hiking group in your area could help with getting started as well as motivation.
- Listening to your body – Take as many breaks as your body tells you to and push yourself only in ways that feel productive. Meaning, Be Nice to Yourself. Instead of fretting about goals, speed or what you “should” be able to tackle, think about how awesome it is that you’re actually hiking. You’ll get there when you get there and when you do, thank your body for doing this hard work for you. Remember, any time something feels bad you can turn around.
- Clothing – You don’t need a pair of expensive hiking boots to get started or even fancy athletic wear, but they are good things to start acquiring if you continue your hiking practice (I hope you do!). Choose breathable, moisture-wicking, athletic wear that fits your body correctly. Maybe, you already have spandex leggings and tank tops and a windbreaker in your closet. Avoid cotton, it retains sweat which can be cold and uncomfortable (honestly, I wear a cotton tank top almost every time I hike and I kick myself for it and then keep doing it anyway). Average athletic sneakers are fine. Some big time hikers swear hiking boots are totally unnecessary, whereas I swear by them. My bigger body likes the ankle support and the thicker foot beds for walking on rocky sections. A small backpack is also necessary for water, snacks, etc.
- Snacks & Hydration – Seriously, don’t fuck around with this. Sometimes, when you’re body is working hard, it doesn’t register your physical needs as loudly as it would in your normal day-to-day. Keeping yourself hydrated and your blood sugar steady as you go will keep you from cramping, experiencing lethargy and having big baby tantrums that make you want to stop mid-trail forever. Carry at least two liters of water for even the shortest trail and have extra water in your car for your return. Snack bars, dried fruit, nuts, jerky are easy, nourishing snacks that make the body happy.
- Safety – I love hiking alone and absolutely recommend it, but I know a lot of people get super wigged out by it. Fair enough! Tell a point of contact where you’re going and think about carrying a pocket knife or mace even just for peace of mind. (Honestly, I carry these things every day, in general.) A first-aid kit, map and compass are also great things to have and familiarize yourself with even when close to home.
2. Day-Hiking Tips & My Gear List
Most of the trails I do are further out of town and out of cell reception, a little more difficult in length and elevation and require extra necessities. A lot of hikers would say I carry too much stuff, but after a lot of trial and many many errors, I’ve found what continuously works for me. First, I cannot stress enough the importance of the following:-Directions to the trailhead, be they in a hiking book, printed out or phone screenshot. Never rely on cell phone reception.
-A map of the trail, from a hiking book, printed out or phone screenshot.
-A headlamp or flashlight, and no, your phone’s flashlight is not good enough. Occasionally, I poorly manage my time and end up hiking miles alone in the dark and it scares the shit out of me.
-I already said this earlier, but always tell someone where you are going! As well as what time you plan to start, when you expect to be done and when you are on your way home. I am the worst at this, but it is so important.
- forest passes (info below), or small bills for bridge crossings and parking
- ultralight day pack/backpack
- hanky/sweat rag
- pee rag (a hanky specifically for wiping after peeing)
- pocket knife (as a weapon/tool)
- trekking poles (can also be a used as a weapon)
- pepper spray
- tiniest first aid kit
- compass (even though I barely know how to use it)
- spare pair of eye contacts
- phone (fully charged, all apps closed, room for photos)
- mini tripod
- selfie stick (yup)
- toilet paper (for #2 only)
- 96oz. water bladder (on extra long and/or hot days, I carry an additional 64oz. steel water bottle)
- hiking book (or phone screenshots of trail map and info)
- trail food (jerky, nuts, dried fruit, occasionally fresh fruits and vegetables)
- lighter & matches
- eye drops
- insect repellent*
- hand sanitizer
- base layer (t-shirt or tank top)
- long layer (thermal and/or hooded sweatshirt)*
- stretchy tight athletic pants
- rain jacket*
- gloves (fingerless and/or regular)*
- good socks
- hiking boots
- hiking sandals* (ideal for water-fording, surprisingly common)
Things I should probably start bringing:
- extra batteries for headlamp
- actual topographic maps
- water purifying tablets
- hand shovel
* = seasonal items
3. Extra Credit, Too Much Information & Hiking Etiquette:
Ability, skill and listening to your body. We all have varying physical abilities and limits and some of us have physical conditions that dictate how we move our bodies. It is so important to listen to your body, but make sure you trust what you are hearing. Many of the signs of hard physical exertion resemble panic feelings, so it’s easy to panic when your heart is racing and you’re breathing very hard. It’s easy to decide in that moment something is too difficult, but is it? Is it possible you’re psyched out and not used to feeling your body exert itself that way? Would you be able to get up that hill if you, on repeat, took forty steps and then paused to take ten deep breaths? Most of the time, you can totally do that, I promise. I always say I can do anything for another mile and that’s when the magic starts to happen. Take a lot of breaks. Drink water. Take photos when you want to catch your breath. I don’t like listening to music on trails and would argue that it’s possibly dangerous, but I know it helps some people get out of their heads about their insecurities. Start early and take your time. A timeline is a good idea, but it doesn’t have to be something unrealistic to create disappointment. It’s the Doing It that matters. It’s the journey. Let yourself be in it. When you get to the top of a hill, mountain or the end of a long trail, think about all your body just did for you. Be grateful. Thank your body and the trail and the Universe for bringing you to this amazingly beautiful place and moment.If you are doing something you simply don’t want to do, don’t do it.
Trust your intuition (but also ask yourself if it’s, indeed, your intuition). Turn around whenever you want to. I also want to say, try to hike up hills and mountains, if it’s something you actually want to do. The pain feels counter-intuitive at first, but it is so rewarding when you reach your destination. It can become religious. Pound out the pain. If you’re like me, you’ll begin to prefer the going up than going down. I also really recommend getting some trekking poles.
Trail access and weather. Does the weather report seem questionable? Is the trail super far away? What time does the sun set? Are you going alone? How remote is it? Have roads to it recently been closed for one reason or another (floods, wildfire, snow, downed trees, rock slides, etc.) These are some of the questions to ask yourself. Along with natural disasters, many trails close seasonally. Make sure the trail you want is open and accessible. You know how to make a Google work and even better, it is super easy to call the ranger district your trail is located in to find out anything you need to know. I do it all of the time. Another thing to keep in mind for mountain hikes, the northernmost part of a big mountain has it’s own weather system. Just because a nearby town calls for partial sun with a light chance of rain, doesn’t mean the same for the mountain.
Buy forest passes. Here in Portland, I get a ton of use out of the Northwest Forest Pass and the Discover Pass. You can buy them online for about $35 apiece and they last a year. Most spots that require parking fees are $5-$10. Get out five or more times and they’ve already paid for themselves. They save me a lot of money and keep me from worrying about what cash I have on hand.
Trail etiquette: Not to be a killjoy, but damn, people–especially when in packs–can be real shitheads when I’m trying to get in my nature zone. Here are some simple guidelines to make the trail an enjoyable experience for everyone.
- Stay on the trail. Do not take shortcuts even if you see what looks like a faint trail because it causes erosion and disrupts the gorgeous and precious ecosystems and environment you’re out there to appreciate.
- Take nothing, leave nothing. Pack out what you bring in, leave no trace, etc. and so on. I can’t pretend I haven’t taken the odd lichen covered branch or two, fancy rocks, a pinecone or three, or the occasional small bouquet of sweet-smelling lupine from the side of the road in spring, but really, resist if you can. Take pictures instead!
- Passing & standing down. Stay to the right on wider trails and always make your presence known when about to pass by saying something like, “coming up on your left.” Stand down to faster hikers, trail runners, horses and mountain bikers. Mountain bikers are supposed to yield to you, but they often don’t. Be cautious.
- We’re all having our own experience. Abundant space is one of my favorite things about hiking, but remember everyone is out for their own experience. Resist having crazy loud conversations (especially on your phone). Don’t camp out with your camera in the middle of a trail or at some stunning view when others are trying to get a good look. Keep your groups small.
- Greet people as they pass. It’s common practice, it feels good and, honestly, it makes me feel like I am taking charge of my presence making me less vulnerable to rude people and possible predators.
- Please don’t wear perfume. Not even a little. It is awful to be in someone’s perfume cloud when you’re concentrating on your breathing. The worst culprits can be found on city trails and tourist trails.
- Going to the bathroom. Shitting in the woods is the worst. It has gotten easier for me, but I still hate it and I don’t want to talk about it. I try my damnedest to wait for a toilet scenario, but every now and again I just have to GO. I do the cathole method. Dig a hole six to eight inches deep and 200-feet from any water source. I like to find a tree with soft duff that I can easily dig a hole in with my shoe or branch and lean back on the trunk. I don’t carry a shovel, but it’s really not a bad idea. Fill in the hole, pack down and put branches or a rock over it. I
bury my tp for #2burn or pack out my tp for #2 in a ziplock bag and drip dry for pee or use a pee rag. My pee rag is a hanky I use only for wiping pee. I clip it to the outside of my bag and wash it after every day. It’s less gross than it sounds. Also, pack out menstrual stuff. I use a Keeper, so I don’t have to bother with tampons/pads. I make sure to rinse my hands after and use a lil hand-sani. Being dirty and gross in nature is a right and a privilege and good for our uptight souls.