Hiking: From Tires to Boots
Trade Horsepower for Foot Power and Go for a Hike
The road circles the base of a pine-crested mountain, undulating though stream beds and over crags of rock. From your windshield, the mountain’s peak appears rugged, breathtaking and inspiring; the cool air at the top must be crystal clear and pure. But to your dismay, the road begins to descend and twist back under the canopy of the forest and the views from the summit of the mountain become lost. What’s up there? What’s the view like? Your Jeep can’t traverse the narrow trail, so you’ll never know if you stay behind the wheel that you could have experienced the best views or the highest peak or the sweetest mountain spring on foot. Sometimes it’s best to leave the rig behind because hiking can be a cathartic, purifying, and liberating experience just as much as navigating a technical trail or reaching your journey’s end.
You’re only going to find out what’s on top of that mountain if you put on your boots, grab your gear, and start hiking.
Hiking in America
Hiking for recreation and sport is a relatively new concept for most of society. Until the mid-1800s, most of America was rural, meaning people interacted with nature on a daily basis, having fields and forests relatively close by. Industrialization and an increase in urban living meant that a walk in the woods became a luxury that city dwellers rarely enjoyed. The congestion of big cities and new understandings of contagious diseases, germ theory, sanitation and air pollution resulted in large city parks, such as Central Park in New York, for example, to be included in city expansion plans across the United States.
Since about 1890, trails leading from urban areas into the surrounding wilderness have become increasingly popular, thanks to an increased appreciation of nature and the rise of “outing” clubs, social organizations formed primarily to promote outdoor activities. One of the first was the Alpine Club, founded in Williamstown, Massachusetts in 1863, which focused its activities in the mountains of New Hampshire. Other early clubs were the Appalachian Mountain Club (Boston, 1876), the Sierra Club (San Francisco, 1892), and the Mazamas of Portland, Oregon (1894), all three of which remain active outing clubs even today. These clubs not only promoted hiking, but also created well-marked trails, maps and shelters for overnight campers. The collective trail-building efforts of the early outing clubs provided a significant basis for our nation’s vast network of hiking trails still in use today.
Make Sure You’re Prepared
Taking a walk in a city park with well-marked paths within sight of the parking lot is one thing, but a trek into the unforgiving wilderness is a completely different animal. Go too far, choose a trail too rough, don’t bring the right gear or don’t plan for unforeseen situations, and any outdoor adventure can turn dangerous, maybe deadly. There are several things you need to accomplish before the first boot hits the trail.
Research: Being knowledgeable about what lies ahead of you is the most important first step. Walking blindly into the wilderness is just inviting a misadventure. Research the area by using online resources, trail maps, hiking reviews and one of the many hiking/camping websites that outlines the trails in that area.
Knowledge and Skill: Hiking and camping in remote areas requires the knowledge of a dozen different specializations. Mountaineering, forestry, weather forecasting, first aid, navigation/map reading and environmental causes are all important areas you’ll need to brush up on. You don’t have to be a guru on the subtle differences between types of pine trees or the sounds of different bear growls, but you should know, at least, how to tell if there are bears in your area and what to do if you stumble across one.
Wear the Right Clothes
It is easy to spot the newbie on the trail. Usually, he’s wet, cold and limping. He’s wearing jeans and his hiking boots are really nice, so nice, in fact, that they are brand new. The denim he’s wearing is made from cotton, and cotton is a notoriously poor choice of clothing if you plan on sweating or getting wet. Instead of wicking away moisture, like wool or synthetic fabrics, cotton retains water. Not only will cotton siphon away body heat when you need it (or trap it when you don’t), but it takes forever to dry, and can ice up when the temps take a plunge.
The important thing to consider is versatility. Your clothes should be able to be altered to reflect the weather around you. Pants that unzip to become shorts and long-sleeve shirts that can be rolled up or unbuttoned altogether are smart choices. If you prepare for the worst by layering light shirts and jackets in the morning, you can slowly peel back the layers as the day gets warmer and slowly put them back on as the evening cools down.
Boots and Shoes
Shoes/Boots: Boots and shoes can be the most important piece of gear you’ll buy for hiking, and there are pros and cons to any kind of footwear, from big clunky hiking boots to running shoes and “barefoot” five-toe shoes. It is a matter of what makes you comfortable. Many times, ill-fitting hiking boots can be heavy and awkward, clamping down on your ankles in uncomfortable places while leaving unnecessary space around your toes. If you’re not used to wearing them (or they are the wrong boot for the activity), they can cause you to have an improper footfall.
They should fit snug everywhere but not tight. No part should feel constrained; you should have enough room to wiggle your toes. It is best to try on new hiking boots at the end of the day (your feet are larger from swelling) and with the socks you plan to wear. Spend some time breaking them in by wearing them for at least a few miles of general walking before hitting the trail.
Socks to Stay Warm
Socks: Like anything, there are many types of socks to choose from, from liners and lightweight socks to thick socks designed for cold mountain trails. They can be made of wool, synthetic material designed to insulate (Hollofil, Thermax, Thermastat), synthetic materials designed to wick away moisture (polypropylene or CoolMax), silk and cotton (never buy cotton socks for hiking).
The best socks for beginners are lightweight, meant for warm conditions and easy trails. They are relatively thin socks that wick moisture and accent comfort over warmth. Consider also wearing liners, which are very thin socks that go between your foot and the sock that further wick away sweat and limit the amount of slip between the sock and your foot, keeping blisters to a minimum.
Pants and Shirts
Pants/Shirt: When you are traveling through the woods or on narrow trails through a wooded area, always wear pants —unless you like trail marks all over your legs from pointy branches or a nice case of poison oak/ivy. To avoid that, it is important to keep as much of your body covered as possible.
However, you should also take into consideration the temperatures in which you are hiking. If it is going to be cold or hot, wear pants and a shirt that have the appropriate weight for the weather. And since being sweaty while you are hiking is sometimes inevitable, at least invest in some clothing that will wick that sweat away from your body. Since fancy hiking shirts can be expensive, a simple breathable t-shirt might do nicely.
Headgear: Any hat you are comfortable in will work. Again, consider the weather. If you are in the desert, wear a hat that well covers your ears and neck, and if it is cold, try a wool cap.
Bring the Right Gear
It is very possible—and all too common for beginning hikers—to pack too much. Their first aid kit is similar to a battlefield medic’s, and they’ve packed enough clothes and food for a trip three times as long as the one they plan to take. Every pound of gear on your back will feel like three pounds by the end of the day, so remove anything from your pack that you might not have a use for.
Pack for the trip you are taking. Are you just taking a quick jaunt up the trail to see what the valley below looks like, and you’ll be gone for a couple of hours at best? Then pack the bare minimum, which means a first aid kit, snacks, plenty of water and a few other personal items like sunscreen and your phone. Although emergency supplies —such as a signaling devices, navigation tools, and fire starting apparatus— are a must, remember that you’re not running headlong into Armageddon.
Pack for the weather, primarily, but keep in mind that the weather will change as the elevation changes. The higher you go, the colder and windier it will become. You’ll need rain gear if it is going to rain, and warm clothing if it is going to get blustery.
Know the Way
The vast majority of rescues that happen in the wilderness are due to lost hikers. For the inexperienced and the unprepared, it is easy to get turned around when everything begins to look the same. The best way to be able to return to your Jeep is to have on hand quality maps, a reliable compass and the basic skills to use them. There are huge differences between a road map used for interstate travel and a topographical map used to navigate the surrounding terrain. Always bring paper maps and don’t rely on wireless devices that could run out of batteries or drop a connection, regardless of how close to home you are.
Hiking is just walking, right? Not quite —there’s a little more to it than that, as you have to navigate constantly changing terrain while maintaining a progressive speed and keeping vigilant of your surroundings. Ever been winded on an escalator? You may want to consider an easier trail or take more frequent breaks along the way. Regardless of your fitness level, use trekking poles as they relieve a great deal of weight from your legs and make scrambling over rocks, roots and branches that much easier.
Additionally, companionship on the trail is always a delightful aspect to being out in nature, but you have to consider whether you’re bringing the right people. Choose hiking partners that match your abilities, strengths and speed. Since a hiking group should travel as fast as its slowest member, that might be frustrating for quick hikers and exhausting for slower ones. Regardless, set your own pace and stick to it.
Don’t be afraid of or daunted by the unknowns on the long, dusty trail. Hiking as recreation has been popular for over 100 years and although it can be dangerous to the unprepared, worrisome to the uninitiated and grueling to those out of shape, the rewards of conquering a tall peak for the majestic views or trudging through pristine valleys seemingly untouched by man can awaken a part of your soul that you might not have known was even there.
You just have to put the Jeep in Park and take the first